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Pilgrim Tales

5 books about the exploration of new lands

Thanksgiving season has me thinking about gobbling up turkeys, naturally, but also…exploration in general and the effect of such visitations upon those visited. Below are five titles with a broad range of interest involving pilgrims, ahem, in the broadest of senses, in strange lands.


Charles C. Mann’s book revealed what the Americas were like before Columbus arrived. When first published, the work was hailed as a fascinating peek into what had been previously overlooked: Which is to say, the ground upon which you and I are standing right now, and the indigenous cultures that called it home.

A People’s History of the United States

I list Howard Zinn’s controversial, flawed, but still readable work here because it was the first history book that opened my eyes to a different view of America’s founding and long movement toward the present (particularly important is its extensive deployment of overlooked source materials, especially Bartolomeo de las Casas’s writings). The first chapter alone is a wellspring that will float you on to the library for more.

A Voyage Long and Strange

Tony Horwitz’s immensely enjoyable retracing of Viking journeys, conquistador adventures, and, yep, even the Mayflower landing, puts you in his shoes as he slips into the boots of those who came before. If you know Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic, then you probably can guess that this is worthwhile reading, so—get it!

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

Raise your hand (the one without the book in it) if you think explorers are a little nutso. OK—well, David Grann’s crackling good read about Percy Fawcett’s search for an Amazonian lost city, and Grann’s own later attempt to find it, will make you happy you stayed in your armchair reading. Seriously. It’s not just because that way you can finish the book in comfort, but because in the Amazon, getting lost physically usually leads to obsession, and losing your marbles mentally PDQ. (Note: Leaven the book with Dirk Wittenborn’s novel, Fierce People.)

Guns, Germs and Steel

This tome, by Jared M. Diamond, caused a firestorm in academic circles and spawned a PBS series, along with many an argument among people of all intellectual interests. Another of Diamond’s works, Collapse, sent equally long-reaching shockwaves through the book world. Worth your time, and your thought, it simply can’t be ignored, whatever your qualms regarding the author’s central thesis.

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