Books of the Year 2012: Travel and place

From art to sport, poetry to nature, travel to food, history to music: our writers select the best of the year’s books in a comprehensive guide to the highlights in every shade of the literary spectrum – except grey

Travel writing is dead; long live the literature of place! In fact, the literary art of journeys and locations merely rebooted while trend-hungry publishers looked away. This year it sprang to life again, healthier than ever. Take Andrew Blum's Tubes: behind the scenes at the internet (Viking, £12.99). He executed a brilliantly smart idea - to visit the global network of data-hubs, server farms and cable nodes from Docklands to Oregon, where immaterial cyberspace hits seabed, hard rock and sub-soil - with investigative skill and flair. Readers will never send an email so carelessly again.

The Mara Crossing (Chatto & Windus, £12.99), equally planetary in its reach but more lyrical in its prose, saw poet Ruth Padel blend travelogue, environmental science and her own verse into a rapt meditation on the meaning of migration - of people, animals and ideas. A pair of legendary, ever-elusive travellers also prompted two of the year's most revealing biographies. In Patrick Leigh Fermor: a life (John Murray, £25), Artemis Cooper winningly followed in the footsteps of the great charmer, warrior and yarn-spinner; while in Ryszard Kapuscinski: a life (translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones; Verso, £25), Artur Domoslawski exposed the double life - as agent and informer for the Polish communist state - led by the most enigmatic and (in many senses) - creative voyager of his time.

In an Olympic year awash with books about London, no work came close to the eccentric charm and warmth on offer in Spitalfields Life (Saltyard Books, £20) by the anonymous "Gentle Author". This deadpan blogger's encounters with East Enders old and new, now transformed into a sumptuous volume, built into an irresistible group portrait of modern metropolitans and their overlapping histories. If the Gentle Author can sound rather like WG Sebald, Nick Papadimitriou veers closer to the topographical delirium of Iain Sinclair or JG Ballard in Scarp (Sceptre, £20): a ramble through his home suburbs of north London that spreads a visionary gleam over the mysterious backwaters of the Northern Line. Further out into the country, Robert Macfarlane's philosophical tramp across deep England, and beyond, in The Old Ways (Hamish Hamilton, £20) confirmed his unique gift for close observation that verges on mystical rapture. Covering some of the same ground (literally), Hugh Thomson enlivened his homecoming walk through the mythic English past and exotic English present with keen reportage in The Green Road Into the Trees (Preface, £18.99).

Three books did the northern counties proud. Simon Armitage read poems for his bed and board as he tramped (in the wrong direction) along the Pennine Way for Walking Home (Faber & Faber, £16.99), which brought a quirkily offbeat sensibility and delectable comic prose to our wild backyard. Jean Sprackland's Strands (Jonathan Cape, £16.99) also packed a poet's eye and tongue into this journal of a year's wanderings along the Lancashire beach near her home, where every tide deposits fresh histories, both natural and human. And in her biography The Pinecone, Jenny Uglow (Faber & Faber, £20) returned to beautifully-observed life the Romantic-era designer and social reformer Sarah Losh, who sought to re-shape the landscapes and communities of Cumbria according to her brand of visionary idealism.

An ocean away, Colombia - a destination of choice for the discerning traveller - inspired two fine, if contrasting books. Tom Feiling's Short Walks from Bogota (Allen Lane, £20) took as its focus the slow recovery of a richly endowed but stricken nation from the fevers of its civil strife. In The Robber of Memories (Granta, £20), Michael Jacobs combined a lusher, more enchanted journey along the Magdalena river with a tender and well-integrated family memoir. From the front-lines and fault-lines of the Middle East, ex-hostage John McCarthy reported with vigour, insight and sympathy on the overlooked Palestinians of Israel itself in You Can't Hide the Sun (Bantam, £20), while Edward Platt brought Biblical history powerfully to bear on a modern flashpoint as he listened to the zealots, peacemakers and survivors of Hebron in The City of Abraham (Picador, £16.99).

The year's strongest literary portrait of a city came in Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom (trans. Laura Watkinson; MacLehose, £20), the great Dutch writer's bittersweet tribute to the fateful capital that moulded his upbringing, and his imagination. And in Meander (Chatto & Windus, £16.99), Jeremy Seal proved (like Jacobs) that a classic travel author's game-plan - a trip along a river, in this case the myth- and history-haunted winding stream that runs through central Turkey to the Aegean - can still deliver an artful and illuminating book.

Further reading:

Books of the year 2012: Fiction

Books of the year 2012: Crime and thrillers

Books of the year 2012: Music

Books of the year 2012: Celebrity

Books of the year 2012: Natural history

Books of the year 2012: Food

Books of the year 2012: Sport

Books of the year 2012: Art

Books of the year 2012: Children's books

Books of the year 2012: Memoirs

Books of the year 2012: History

Books of the year 2012: Poetry

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine