- Book prize chair says, "Making a list of funny travel books is a surprisingly contentious task"
- Garrison Keillor, Paul Theroux, Mary Roach, Eric Weiner among authors who helped compile list
- Bill Bryson only author on list with more than one book
- Oldest book on list published in 1849, four written since year 2000
(CNN)We expect a lot from our travel writers:
Cultural insight. Entertaining anecdotes. A little bit of derring-do. But, mostly, we want them to make us laugh.
As every traveler knows, a good sense of humor is essential when facing the mysteries and miseries of a foreign culture.
That's what makes writers who can deliver fascinating stories from around the world while making us snort our cardamom chai through our noses such treasured commodities.
For the past few months the CNN Travel staff has been scouring our shelves -- and convening a panel of outside experts -- to curate the definitive list of funniest travel books ever written.
If such a task is impossible -- as several contributors have suggested -- then the joke is surely on us.
Experts weigh in
"Making a list of funny travel books is a surprisingly contentious task, because making jokes about the people you travel amongst goes against the whole purpose of travel writing which is to understand and empathize," says Barnaby Rogerson, head of the UK-based Eland Publishing and longtime chair of the Dolman Travel Book Prize.
"The only way out of this conundrum is to turn the humor against yourself, and most especially about our hidden expectations of the heroic traveler or our banal tourist industry."
That's one opinion.
Sage though it is, not everyone applies the same criteria.
Mark Twain, for one, took immense joy in making jokes about the rich and ancient cultures he encountered while writing "The Innocents Abroad": "The community is eminently Portuguese -- that is to say, it is slow, poor, shiftless, sleepy and lazy."
We couldn't raise the cantankerous Twain for his picks, but others who weighed in for us included writers Garrison Keillor, Paul Theroux, Mary Roach, Eric Weiner, Andrew McCarthy, Peter Moore, Andrew Mueller and John Birmingham, as well as industry experts such as Melissa Chessher (director of online journalism and instructor of travel writing classes at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications), Shawn Donley (book buyer for Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, the largest independent bookstore in the United States), Ed Park (editor at Amazon Publishing's Little A imprint) and Elaine Petrocelli and Luisa Smith of the California-based Book Passage Travel Writers Conference.
None of the above were responsible -- not to say culpable -- for the final list, whose contentious entries and order were determined by frequency of mentions, persuasiveness of arguments for and against and, in a couple of cases, naked autocratic preference.
15. 'The Sex Lives of Cannibals' (2004)
By J. Maarten Troost
At age 26, Troost leaves the cushy city life and embarks on a two-year stint in the heat-blasted "end of the world" -- in this case, the equatorial Pacific atoll of Tarawa in the Republic of Kiribati.
"Looking for a writer who can capture the hilarity of travel like the beloved Bill Bryson? J. Maarten Troost's 'The Sex Lives of Cannibals' is a comic classic of a travelogue that will completely change the way you look at the idyllic South Pacific." -- Shawn Donley, new book purchasing supervisor at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, America's largest independent bookstore
"It's entirely possible that somewhere on planet Earth there exists a cuisine more unpalatable than that found in Kiribati. I accept this possibility like I accept the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. I have never encountered it. I cannot imagine it. I simply accept that there is a statistical possibility of its existence."
14. 'Vroom with a View' (2006)
By Peter Moore
From Milan to Rome on a '61 Vespa nicknamed Sophia. If you understand the "Sophia" reference you'll appreciate not just where the Italy-intoxicated Moore goes, but where he's coming from.
No less an authority than Mario Batali blurbed the book as "a brilliant love letter to Italy," and several on our panel agreed.
"Even though she was with Andy she lapped up Alfonso'a attention, and when it was turned elsewhere she sat getting slowly pissed on the enamel-stripping red, all the while giving a blow-by-blow account of what her therapist had said to anyone who would listen. 'I am a beautiful and desirable woman,' she said morosely. 'I've just got to accept that.'"
13. 'The Lost Continent' (1989)
By Bill Bryson
The preeminent bard of genial travel laughs embarks on a 38-state tour in search of the vanishing small town America of his youth ... in his mother's aging Chevy Chevette.
"Early Bryson just kills me. Love his line about living in London, the weather there: 'It was like living inside Tupperware.' 'Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe' is also excellent ... just about any Bryson, really." -- Mary Roach, author of "Stiff" and "Gulp."
"As I always used to tell Thomas Wolfe, there are three things you just can't do in life. You can't beat the phone company, you can't make a waiter see you until he's ready to see you and you can't go home again."
12. 'Coasting' (1999)
By Dick Flinthart
A swaggering travel guide that takes in the good, the bad and the malignant features of 2,800 kilometers of Australia's East Coast.
The funny endorsement
"My fave travel book is Dirk Flinthart's 'Coasting,' a sort of surf and drugs tour of eastern Australia. It was publicly burned by the mayor of Mackay, or maybe Townsville. Possibly both. I seem to recall the entry for Ipswich, my old hometown, was something like, 'Don't. Just don't. They all play banjo with their toes out there." -- John Birmingham, author of "He Died With a Felafel in his Hand" and "The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco."
11. 'Killing Yourself to Live' (2005)
By Chuck Klosterman
Extemporaneous pop culture critic Klosterman sets off on a U.S. cross-country road trip with a twin purpose: look up old girlfriends and visit the places where famed rockers, from Buddy Holly to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Kurt Cobain, met their tragic fates.
Because he's not known as a travel writer and because this book wasn't marketed as one, Klosterman's unexpected and unique travelogue is unfairly overlooked.
"I'm shocked by anyone who doesn't consider Los Angeles to be anything less than a bozo-saturated hellhole. It is pretty much without question the worst city in America. The reason 'Walking in L.A.' by Missing Persons was the most accidentally prescient single of 1982 was because of its unfathomable (but wholly accurate) specificity: Los Angeles is the only city in the world where the process of walking on the sidewalk could somehow be (a) political, and (b) humiliating. It is the only community I've ever visited where absolutely every cliche proved to be completely accurate."
10. 'Out of Sheer Rage' (1997)
By Geoff Dyer
Some travel for discovery. Some travel to for recreation. Dyer travels for procrastination.
To put off writing a book about D.H. Lawrence, he roams the planet (Rome, Greece, Mexico, United States) in an elaborate stall.
No less a comic authority than Steve Martin blurbed it as "the funniest book I have ever read," and several on our expert panel, including Andrew McCarthy and Little A publishing's Ed Park, rated it highly.
"Laura asked if we could have just a drink, nothing to eat, and the woman said no, not just a drink. Then she gestured to us to sit down: she would bring us a drink. They are like that in Sicily, said Laura. Their instinct is to say 'no,' but once they have established that a thing cannot be done they are happy to do it."
9. 'Queenan Country' (2004)
By Joe Queenan
Charmed and discombobulated in equal measures, unapologetic Yank Joe Queenan travels through Old Blighty -- homeland of his wife and extended family -- to find out what makes the British tick.
The man the "Philadelphia Inquirer" once called the "Emperor of Eviscerations" is sharp as ever here, but also has such a soft spot for England that he's one of the few writers who can muster some kind words for soccer hooligans, as well as an eccentric epicure who specializes in fox stew.
"The terms Brits and British are suffused with a subliminal suggestion of latent ponciness: cucumber sandwiches, sticky wickets, cream teas, tasty bickies, getting all squiffy, Noel Coward. In making this assertion, I do not mean to suggest that the British, whoever they are, are in fact poncey, or that there is anything wrong with being poncey. But the Scots and the Welsh definitely do not fit this description. Whatever Limeys are, they are not."
8. 'Are You Experienced?' (1997)
By William Sutcliffe
The only novel on our list follows Brit gap-year bounder Dave on a hellish (for him) excursion to India, providing the author ample opportunity to spew murderously funny vitriol at unwashed backpackers, high-end package tourists, Intimate Yoga hucksters and over-solicitous locals.
If only traveling in India were as easy as reading this book.
"'Where's whatsername. ... The fit one.'
'We separated. Irreconcilable differences and all that.'
'She left you then.'
'Sort of. We just ... kind of started off on the wrong foot anyway, and I can't really remember how, but we ended up hating each other's guts.'
'Bad news, man. India does that to you.'
7. 'Into the Heart of Borneo' (1984)
By Redmond O'Hanlon
True to the title, naturalist O'Hanlon, along with poet pal James Fenton and three native guides, makes his way up exotic jungle rivers into the forbidding interior of Borneo.
"Those who manage to inform whilst entertaining us must get my final vote, so into the final hat goes Nigel Barley's, 'The Innocent Anthropologist,' Peter Mayne's 'A Year in Marrakech' and Redmond O'Hanlon's 'Into the Heart of Borneo.' But only one thing is really certain, and that is each and every passionate reader will have their own list." --Barnaby Rogerson, chair of the Donlan Travel Book Prize and publisher at Eland
"'We are educated men,' he said, gripping my arm and jerking it up and down for emphasis, 'being drunk does not alter the fact. We are discussing the history of our countries and I believe we should continue to do so.'
"'I'm going to be sick.'
"'Of course you are. We are all sick when we drink too much. But my dear friend, I beg you not to take it so seriously.'"
6. 'Westward Ha!' (1947)
By S.J. Perelman
The longtime "New Yorker" columnist's jaunty, round-the-world voyage by sea west from Hollywood to "all the areas celebrated by Kipling, Conrad and Maugham," then to the Middle East and Europe -- in all, 27 countries in nine months.
"A great funny travel writer was the late lamented S.J. Perelman. People thought he invented his wild tales set in Africa, China, Singapore, Israel and elsewhere -- in "Westward Ha!" and "The Swiss Family Perelman" -- but most of his travel stories were only one inch from the truth." -- Paul Theroux, author of "The Great Railway Bazaar" and "Mr. Bones," coming out September 30.
"I found myself in a very dim night club, teaching an exophthalmic Hungarian girl the Cubanola glide. The next morning I felt remarkably listless and there was an outbreak of beef Stroganoff on my tie as though I were coming down with a fever, but these symptoms soon passed, and by noon I was able to keep down a little clear broth made of Angostura, lemon peel and bourbon."
5. 'The Great Railway Bazaar' (1975)
By Paul Theroux
Theroux's epic train voyage from London to Tokyo and back -- with stops in Iran, India, Thailand, Russia, Poland and more -- is both an eloquent travel time capsule and chronicle of timeless human foibles.
"A lot of people mistake Theroux's deadpan humor as grumpiness, but I love the way this book captures the hardship and absurdity of long, overland journeys and the slightly strange people you meet.
"Witty and clever rather than laugh-out-loud, it also contains my favorite quote about Australian travelers ever: 'At my lowest point, when things were at their most desperate and uncomfortable, I always found myself in the company of Australians, who were like a reminder that I'd touched bottom.'
"It makes me happy to think that I might be marking the bottom for someone nowadays." -- Peter Moore, author of "Vroom with a View" and "Vroom by the Sea."
" 'It all looks absolutely hideous,' said Molesworth. But he was smiling. 'I think I'm going to like it.' "
4. 'The Innocents Abroad' (1869)
By Mark Twain
A much-publicized 1867 transatlantic cruise from the United States to multiple ports of call in Europe and the Holy Land results in a breathtaking series of cranky one-liners and trenchant observation from America's classic humorist.
"The daddy of all travel books is 'The Innocents Abroad' by Mr. Mark Twain in which he said that a man never knows what a consummate ass he can be until he goes overseas. And 'Foreigners spell better than they pronounce.' Written in 1867 but still, miraculously, funny today." -- Garrison Keillor, host of "A Prairie Home Companion" and author of "Lake Wobegon Days," "The Keillor Reader" and more than 20 books.
"A street in Constantinople is a picture which one ought to see once -- not oftener."
3. 'A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again' (1997)
By David Foster Wallace
Call it a long essay or a short book -- either way, Wallace's exuberantly detailed account of life aboard a Caribbean luxury liner is easily the funniest thing ever written about the cruise industry.
"The funniest travel book I can think of." -- Ed Park, author of "Personal Days" and editor at Amazon Publishing's Little A imprint.
"I fully grant that mysterious invisible room-cleaning is in a way great, every true slob's fantasy, somebody materializing and deslobbing your room and then dematerializing -- like having a mom without the guilt. But there is also, I think, a creeping guilt here, a deep accretive uneasiness, a discomfort that presents -- at least in my own case -- as a weird kind of pampering-paranoia. Because after a couple of days of this fabulous invisible room-cleaning, I start to wonder how exactly Petra knows when I'm in 1009 and when I'm not."
2. 'Holidays in Hell' (1988)
By P.J. O'Rourke
"Trouble tourist" O'Rourke takes his defiantly conservative attitudes -- "To extend civilization, even with guns, isn't the worst thing in the world" -- to political hot spots of the 1980s, including Lebanon, Gaza, Syria, the Philippines, El Salvador and points in between.
"'Holidays in Hell' is the first travelogue I read where I felt the author held nothing back. All those nuggets that journalists and travel writers tell each other over drinks, O'Rourke actually wrote. It's wildly funny, in the 'it's funny because it's true' sense." -- Eric Weiner, author of "The Geography of Bliss" and "Man Seeks God."
"O'Rourke dared to write out loud what everyone who has covered serious stories has always known -- that trouble, almost invariably caused, as it is, by human folly and hubris, can be funny. His waspish dispatches from various frontlines remain a bracing antidote to the pomposity of news coverage, and remind that we're not obliged to take things seriously just because other people have decided they're worth killing for." -- Andrew Mueller, author of "I Wouldn't Start From Here" and "Rock and Hard Places."
"Each American embassy comes with two permanent features -- a giant anti-American demonstration and a giant line for American visas. Most demonstrators spend half their time burning Old Glory and the other half waiting for green cards."
1. 'A Walk in the Woods' (1998)
By Bill Bryson
After 20 years in Britain, American Bill Bryson's attempt to reconnect with his homeland by hiking the famed Appalachian Trail results in an immortal sketch of bizarre characters and one show-stopping observation after another about everything from the astonishing wonders of the chestnut tree to the government (mis)management of public lands.
Our expert panel split its votes between so many of Bryson's more than 20 books that we decided to break the Gordian Knot by selecting this one -- his bestseller -- as the funniest travel book ever written by the legit king of the genre.
"Nearly everyone I talked to had some gruesome story involving a guileless acquaintance who had gone off hiking the trail with high hopes and new boots and come stumbling back two days later with a bobcat attached to his head or dripping blood from an armless sleeve and whispering in a hoarse voice, 'Bear!' before sinking into a troubled unconsciousness."