After graduating from college in 2010 I took a gap year — although I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time (silly me, I thought I was beginning my career.) Armed with little more than a bachelor’s degree in Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies and an AmeriCorps acceptance letter, off I went to see and change the world. Laden with a suitcase full of boho-chic blouses and my first-ever center crease pinstripe pants, let me just say: I wish I’d thought to pack some of these books to read during a gap year too.
But, that’s kind of the point of a gap year, isn’t it — to fling yourself out into the world completely unprepared, filled with unrealistic expectations, and boasting almost no practical skills whatsoever? That’s how my gap year turned out, anyway. What I imagined would be a year of volunteer service followed by a lifetime of employment in the field I went to school for turned out to be nothing more than a highly enlightening detour on the road to exactly where I never thought I’d end up. I can still hear the universe laughing.
Here are 11 books to read during your gap year. And cheers to your gap year being as difficult, and beautiful, and unexpected, and soul bruising, and empowering, and life changing as mine was… and if it’s not, don’t sweat that either. It’s called a “gap year” for a reason, after all.
1. Tales from Nowhere: Unexpected Stories from Unexpected Places edited by Don George
The tales in this collection of essays hardly come from nowhere — in fact, they come from just about everywhere you’d want to be on your gap year: Australia and Antarctica, Niger and Sri Lanka, Malawi and China and Mexico, and more. And each story, in its own unique way, celebrates the willing and the intrepid, the unfamiliar and the unexpected, the eager and the open-hearted. Tales from Nowhere: Unexpected Stories from Unexpected Places offers readers 30 essays about what happens when you go searching for nowhere, and find yourself somewhere wonderful.
2. Work Your Way Around the World by Susan Griffith
One of the first questions people ask you when they hear you’re taking a gap year is how you’ll pay for it — especially if you’re using your year to travel around the world. And there’s literally nothing worse than realizing people assume your parents are funding your hard-won solo adventure. If you find yourself a little (or a lot) strapped for cash as your anticipated gap year steadily approaches, then Work Your Way Around the World is definitely the book for you. An everything-you-need guide for finding temporary (and legal) work around the world, with tips and tricks from travelers who have actually done it.
3. Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves
Advocating for "thoughtful travel" and traveling with purpose and intention, Travel as a Political Act focuses on moments of travel that have the ability to transform a traveler’s perspective and change their life forever — that is what you want out of your gap year, amirite? Taking readers to Europe, Central America, Africa, and the Middle East, this book is both an appeal for Americans to cast off any media-informed lens through which one might understand the world, and instead go out and experience it firsthand.
4. What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman
The utterly hilarious Kristin Newman will be there for you during those times (and we all have them) when a gap year feels like nothing more than extended avoidance of the “real world” all our friends seem to be living in, rather than the just another chapter in a beautiful and adventure-filled life. In between her full-time career and attending seemingly endless weddings and baby showers for friends, Newman made time to travel the world, solo. What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding is a collection of those adventures. And it is so spot-on and funny.
5. Amazing Gap Year Adventures: Inspirational True Stories From the Backpacking Trail edited by Tammy Cohen
The title of this collection of essays speaks for itself — but it’s exactly the kind of spirit boosting book you’ll want to have by your side no matter where in the world your gap year takes you. Blending tales of ‘round the world travels with international volunteerism, Amazing Gap Year Adventures will completely inspire you to make the most of your gap year, and say yes to every adventure that comes your way — and as an added bonus, there are tons of anecdotes about the best ways to explain your gap year to everyone who won’t understand it. Like, say, your parents.
6. Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar: Stories of Food during Wartime by the World's Leading Correspondents edited by Matt Mcallester
Hopefully you won’t be adding "war correspondent" to your gap year resume (unless that’s what you were going for, and then more power to you) but this essay collection is still an awesome gap year read. Not only will these stories prepare you for the extreme eating you’re bound to encounter at some point during the year, it will also remind you of the significant disparities between the world you grew up in, and wherever you’ve chosen to spend your gap year. The overall message: keep an open heart, a grateful spirit, and a bottle of Tums with you always.
7. A Life Inspired: Tales of Peace Corps Service produced by the Peace Corps
Tons of intrepid gap year travelers will take the Peace Corps route — and across the board the Peace Corps volunteers I’ve known and loved have all agreed on one thing: more difficult than strange food, and language barriers, bucket showers, and no internet is the fact that as a Peace Corps volunteer you’re often serving alone, in the middle of somewhere you've never been before. The essayists in this collection have taken solo-travel to another level with their Peace Corps service — and along the way discovered a whole new family half a world away from home. A Life Inspired is all kinds of gap-year (or two!) inspiring.
8. Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today by John Holloway
Here’s the tricky thing about a gap year: inevitably, at some point, you’re going to realize that all those ideals and sophisticated worldviews (and a whole lot of your self-confidence, to boot) just don’t hold up out in the non-university world — not in the ways you expect them to, anyway. (At least, that’s how my gap year went.) This is where Change the World Without Taking Power comes in: when you’re one phone call away from throwing in the towel on the whole adventure, returning home, and taking a job that’ll make you feel like you’ve joined the cast of Mad Men. This book will remind you of all the questions you headed out into the world to answer, all the reasons you took the path less traveled, and why you absolutely want to see your gap year through.
9. Life Is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel by Judith Fein
From Mexico to Vietnam, Guatemala to Israel, and a whole lot of other places in between Life is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel is an account of 14 different journeys Judith Fein has taken during her years as a traveler. Along the way, Fein picks up some international words of wisdom, in addition to her travel souvenirs. From mourning death to resolving family discord to the different definitions of success held around the world, she snags globally-informed tips and tricks on ways of living well.
10. Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid by Jessica Alexander
Arriving in Rwanda as a bright-eyed intern, immediately following the 1994 genocide, Jessica Alexander had no idea what she was in for. The devastating and heartbreaking landscape gave her a crash course in humanitarian aid work — and was the first step in her life spent across Rwanda, Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Haiti. From hopeful to heartbroken, from cynic to realist, Alexander’s story in Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid is one that tons of people experience during their gap year and beyond — and her journey will remind you why it’s worth all the difficult lessons.
11. A House Somewhere: Tales of Life Abroad edited by Don George
If you’ve ever thought of turning your gap year into a more permanent living arrangement, then the writers in this collection totally feel you. Sometimes we don’t know we’ve spent our whole lives being homesick for a place we’ve never even been — until we finally go there. Each of the essays in A House Somewhere tell of the decision to make a home, be it permanent or part-time, in a chosen homeland, instead of the one the storyteller was born in. This book is for anyone who simply doesn’t want their gap year to end. Like, ever.
Image: E. Ce Miller