Non fiction books
Culture and Book Reviews

Understand the World: Reading List

I don’t travel without a physical book. Yes, it takes up space but it doesn’t need charging or WIFI, so perfect when stuck at a border for hours. My preferred reading material when on the road is fiction so check out my Best Fiction Books to Read While Travelling list.

But I also do a sizeable amount of reading when I’m not travelling. Books are a form of armchair travel and help me understand the world. So here is is my extensive non-fiction list to inspire, educate and entertain you.


Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy

The extraordinary debut of the legendary Irish explorer whom I consider the queen of travel writing. The journey is a massive physical undertaking, is fraught with challenges and dangers, but is also a testament to the human spirit. The book is an example of the writing talent that Dervla is gifted with. Since then, she has brought parts of the lesser-known world to the wider world in over 20 books.

The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train through Asia by Paul Theroux

If Dervla Murphy is the queen of travel writing then Paul Theroux is the King. Theroux was already an established novelist when he undertook this rail journey in 1973. Published in 1975, his descriptive prose remains relevant and fresh when giving a sense of time and place. But the real stars of the book are the trains, and Theroux’s love for that form of transport shines through.

Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything by Elizabeth Gilbert

Despite the best efforts of Julia Roberts, the book is vastly superior to the film. It’s the tale of Gilbert’s solo travels to Italy, India and Indonesia in the aftermath of her divorce and how she discovers new definitions of success and happiness. It’s a recipe for clichés but Gilbert’s honest style keeps readers engaged. There’s a reason it’s on everyone reading list.

Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America by Bill Bryson

I come from Des Moines. Somebody has to is probably the most memorable introduction to a travel book I’ve ever read. And so Bryson sets the scene for the hilarious ride across his home country. If you fail to laugh then check your pulse.

Ryanland by Philip Nolan

What Bryson does for his native US, Irish journalist Nolan does for his native continent (Europe) on his native airline (Ryanair). Described by its publisher as a no-frills odyssey across Europe, Nolan uses Ryanair’s destination map as his guide, bringing us to parts of unfamiliar Europe with hilarious results.

Dervla Murphy Full Tilt Ryanland Philip Nolan
Dervla’s Murphy’s extraordinary packing list for her trip to India and Philip Nolan’s less fraught trip around Europe


How to win friends and influence people by Dale Carnegie

I’m keen to hear the recommendations of successful people. So when Warren Buffet credits a Dale Carnegie course for much of his success, one takes note. I immediately got my head stuck into Carnegie’s classic guide and uncovered a perfect instruction manual on how to succeed in a non-biased, non-privileged world.

Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss

I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about regarding Ferriss’s breakthrough book The 4-Hour Work Week. On the other hand, Tools of Titans is a welcome addition to any bookshelf. The subtitle of this book is The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers. Ferriss interviews people who have achieved success in their chosen fields. The interviews are a great insight into their lives and minds. Some of their habits and tips are practical, and can be applied by everybody.

The Subtle Art of not giving a F*ck by Mark Manson

The immediate drawback of this book is the extensive use of the f-word. It becomes irritating after a while. However, the message of this anti self-help book more than compensates for this shortcoming. And there’s a clue in that last sentence of what that message is. Go read for yourself. You’ll be the better for it.

The Novel Cure: An A to Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud & Susan Elderkin

This is not a book to read from cover to cover. In fact, this is a bibliotherapy reference book worth dipping in and out of, depending on the nature of your life’s crisis. Berthoud and Elderkin believe that novels have the answer to all of life’s challenges. Broken-hearted? Try Charlottle Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Dissatisfied? Try Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

If you can’t find the fix to your crisis in fictional novels, then let de Botton guide you through the advice of the philosophers. This is a surprisingly uplifting and informative book and is a great introduction to an esoteric subject matter. Broken-hearted? Try Schopenhauer. Unhappy? Try Epicurus.

Great books to solve a personal crisis!

The Magic by Rhonda Byrne

Very much in the self-help section of the bookshop/library, I couldn’t understand the praise that Byrne’s previous title The Secret garnered and gave up pretty quickly. The Magic, on the other hand, has a simple message presenting pretty much from the start.

The Unexpected Joy of Being Single by Catherine Gray

Not only is this one of the best books to read while travelling but it’s also a great book to make you go travelling…solo. Northern Irish writer Catherine Gray follows up her bestselling The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober with another great read tackling the societal taboo and personal struggles of singledom. This may hit some raw nerves but it may equally be as liberating.


The year of living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country by Helen Russell

What starts off as a personal narrative on her family’s move to Denmark, Londoner Russell discovers that her new country of abode designs daily life with ease and comfort that engenders the happiness the country is known for. A fun and insightful read that’s a must for economists and policy makers.

Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead – Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg’s book tackles workplace gender issues in the biased world we live in. As Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sandberg is one of the most influential people in the world. Part biography and part commentary, this book will resonate with any woman who has strived for workplace equality and career progression. It also outlines how men can play their part in creating an equal world. The research on gender bias and stereotyping in the book shows just how far the feminist movement has yet to go.

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

Mitch, a successful journalist, discovers that Morrie Schwartz, his influential college professor is dying. Mitch visits Morrie every Tuesday for some final lessons in life. This is an uplifting yet tear-jerking story of a pupil, a teacher and the lessons we can all learn.

Don’t Mention the Wars: A Journey through European Stereotypes by Tony Connelly

I didn’t agree with all observations in this book but, for the most part, journalist Connelly is spot on with his accounts. The title comes from the famous line in the British TV comedy, Fawlty Towers. Given Europe’s fraught past, it’s an apt title, and Connelly delves into history and culture in detail. A must-read before visiting Europe.

An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan

Brian Keenan left the chaos of his native Belfast to teach English in civil war Lebanon during 1980s. He had no sooner settled into his new life in Beirut when he was kidnapped by Shia militia. Only an outstanding writer like Keenan could convey the complex ordeal he endured and his life-saving friendship with fellow captive, British journalist John McCarthy, into a powerful and unforgettable read.

Three very different, but equally insightful, personal stories


Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Austrian psychiatrist Frankl found himself interned in various Nazi concentration camps in 1940s. This book outlines his struggle for survival in the camps and, in the process, shows how meaning and purpose in our own lives is a powerful survival tool.

The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler: Leading Millions into the Abyss by Laurence Rees

How does an anti-social, hateful character tap into the hearts and minds of the world’s most scientifically-advanced and cultured country? This book by historian Rees is an important exploration of social psychology and the power it had, and still has in the modern era around the world, to distort the democratic process. The book is also in documentary format by the BBC.

All of These People: A Memoir by Fergal Keane

The memoirs of international correspondents are usually a great read and this one by the multi-award winning Keane certainly lives up to that reputation. Starting his career with a regional Irish newspaper, Keane joined the BBC in 1989 covering the turbulence of Northern Ireland and South Africa, and Rwanda’s genocide within his first five years at the corporation.

The Things I’ve Seen: Nine Lives of a Foreign Correspondent by Lara Marlowe

This is a collection of Marlowe’s articles down through the years from the world’s various trouble zones. Her works are powerful and she doesn’t hold back when it comes to the foreign policy shortcomings of her native US. A gifted writer, Marlowe is also a cat lover, hence the title.

May You Live in Interesting Times by Conor O’Clery

If you ever find yourself next to Conor O’Clery on a flight, return home immediately. I’m sure he’s a nice guy. Based in Moscow during the fall of communism, in Beijing during the increasing oppression of pro-democracy activists, and in New York during the 9/11 attacks, his sense of timing makes for great journalism but not for a great holiday! The title comes from a Chinese proverb and is apt as he’s reported on some very interesting world events.

Both O’Clery and Marlowe contribute to The Irish Times

No Man’s Land: Dispatches from the Middle East by Richard Crowley

If you want a concise introduction into the history, current affairs (up to 2007) and personal perspectives of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories and its residents, then this is the perfect book. Written by RTE’s then Jerusalem correspondent, this was one of the titles I read prior to visiting the region.

We Did Nothing: Why the Truth Doesn’t Always Come Out When the UN Goes In by Linda Polman

This is an indictment of the limitations of the UN, and the ways in which powerful member states manipulate the organisation for their benefit. Dutch journalist Polman has covered various UN peacekeeping missions, and shows the victims of manipulation are not only those the UN is charged to protect but even the unsupported Blue Helmet troops as well.

Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World by Nicholas Shaxson

If Polman’s book doesn’t make you angry, then Shaxson’s book will. A well-researched work on global tax havens, it shows how a large amount of the world’s money is untaxed and the mechanisms in place to facilitate that. The lack of willingness to prevent this tax avoidance is the most frustrating facet of this topic.

Dead Aid: Why aid is not working and how there is another way for Africa by Dambisa Moyo

Moyo, a Zambian economist who gained her PhD at Oxford, tackles the aid mechanisms in place for her native continent, and argues that this process has left Africa poorer. She proposes alternative economic models for Africa. Trade not aid is the positive, take-home message here.

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Tell You Everything You Need to Know about Global Politics by Tim Marshall

This book does exactly what it says in the title. It is an easy guide to understanding the world from a global politics/superpowers perspective. Written by the former Sky News Foreign Affairs Editor, it puts the importance of physical geographical structures such as rivers into political context. Marshall also brought out a children’s version of the book which equally comes recommended for younger audiences.

What in the World? Political travels in Africa, Asia and the Americas by Peadar King

This is the book of the documentary series of the same name by Irish broadcaster Peadar King. Poverty, oppression, exploitation are key themes and it features stories of people whose lives have been negatively affected by those themes. A well-written, sobering read on the inequalities of our world.

First Confession: A Sort of Memoir by Chris Patten

Why on earth would an Irish travel blogger have an interest in, never mind enjoy, the memoirs of a British Conservative Party member? Because Chris Patten has had some of the most interesting jobs in international politics (EU Commissioner, last Governor of Hong Kong, Northern Ireland Policing Commission Chairperson, to name a few). And he’s written about his work in a candid and self-deprecating manner. Not a book for everyone but definitely the most noteworthy political memoirs I’ve read.

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

The memoirs of one of the most revered public figures of the 20th Century, this is the fascinating and inspiring story of how a village boy grew up to be the most prominent anti-apartheid activist in South Africa. His strength of character in the challenging environment of Robben Island prison is astounding as is his achievement in becoming the first black president of South Africa in the country’s first full free election.

TK Whitaker: Portrait of a Patriot by Anne Chambers

While my international readers are asking TK who?, my Irish readers are applauding my final choice. Voted Irish Person of the 20th Century, Dr. Whitaker rose, from humble beginnings, to become the senior civil servant at the Department of Finance where his work earned him the Architect of Modern Ireland moniker. The book charts the successes and challenges of his very long professional and personal life. His integrity and work ethic are universal qualities, which is why this book has a wide relevance.


And that’s it. Do you agree that these non-fiction titles will help you understand the world better? Do you have other recommendations?

The history/current affairs category accounts for almost half of this list. History can dictate current events and travel is only possible when current events are favourable. According to Rick Steves, travel is a political act enabling us to understand the challenges of globalisation, and gain an empathy for and broader perspective towards others. I hope this list does the same.

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