The Allure of the Traveling Book

This is an essay by Sarah Li Cain.

Exhausted and lonely, I checked into my hostel in Malaysia. I had just gotten off a 10-hour bus ride and was looking forward to some decent rest. Not the one I just had while sitting in a broken chair in a squeaky bus.

I opened the door to my room, threw my backpack on the floor and flopped on the bed. My back lands on something bumpy. No, it’s not the bed I thought. I could have slept on this foreign item I was that tired. Instead, curiosity got the better of me and I flicked on the lights.

There it was, sitting there in the middle of my temporary lodgings was Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. It was as though someone has left a gift specifically for me. There was no wrapping paper to tear up, no thank you to be dispersed. I opened up the book and read for a few hours before finally drifting off to sleep.

I will be forever grateful to the person who left me this book. I had many more bus rides before I reached my final destination three weeks later. Gregory David Roberts never left my side. Even though I was alone I never felt lonely. When I was done reading the book, I did the same thing the last traveler did. I left it in the middle of the bed for the next person. It was now my turn to give a gift.

These traveling books are simply not books. They are our long lost friends. They are also our excuses to meet new acquaintances, and a chance to ignite our imagination about the people around us. Some travelers may not understand the impact they have when they leave a book for others.

They may be simply unloading their backpacks because they have too many items. Others do think of the next person staying in the room. It’s weird, there’s an unspoken rule around the traveling community about leaving books. Why throw away a perfectly good book when there could be someone else who can find just as much, if not more value out of it than you did?

Not only are these people sharing a book, they are sharing the love of the written word. It doesn’t matter who the next person that receives the book is, as long as they read it and leave it for others. It’s quite fascinating to think how far a book can physically travel just by passing it along from person to person.

If those books could speak I wonder what kinds of stories they might tell, other than the words between its covers.

These traveling books can help break the ice with fellow travelers. If you see them reading a book in a language you understand, chances are they speak that language too.

You can break the ice by asking them how they like book so far, how long they have until they are finished, and if they want to trade.

Not only will you gain a potentially new book, you will possibly gain a new friend. So the next time you travel, make sure you leave a book for a weary traveler.

Be confident in the impact that you and the book will have.


Sarah Li Cain is an international educator, freelance writer and blogger. She has a lifelong love of the written word and is an avid reader and writer. She is working on reclaiming her fearlessness at Sarah Li You can follow her on Twitter.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Moyan Brenn


  1. Chris(ty)

    Books are so important on any journey. I know I love it when a hostel or rental apartment on the road has good reading material, because while I make it a priority to travel with plenty of my own, the books I find places help me to expand my horizons and read things that I might not otherwise pick up.

    1. Sarah Li Cain

      I agree! I love hostels with libraries. I actually actively seek them out now whenever I travel.

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