This are just some of the books that I read (pretty much cover to cover) in the six months leading up to my trip. There is no such thing as “too much knowledge”, as long as you recognize that traveling (“the real thin”) will always be a richer, more exciting, and more dynamic experience than any text could convey.
Personally, the more I know about a location, the safer and more prepared I feel. There are many people who would disagree with me; they get more enjoyment from learning as they go. Of course maintaining a fine balance between preparation and on-the-spot cultural education is probably the best way to truly have a succesful traveling experience. Fine art, culture, and history is often better appreciated through reading, research, or a good tour guide. Of-the-cuff experiences such as eating in a local restaurant, being invited into someone’s home, or attending a community function are likely to be unresearched, spur-of-the-moment and split decision experiences.
The hardest part about reading so many different books, was to pick which one would accompany me into the field. Eventually I settled on Africa (lonely planet), because it is an all-encompassing book which covers the first 8 months of my travels.
A close runner-up was First-Time Around the World, although I have to be honest: I didn’t completely mesh with the book. At one point, it suggests eating food off other people’s plates (in a pizza restaurant) or sleeping on park benches to avoid paying accomodation fees. I honestly feel that if a backpacker regularly follows this advice, you are verging on the edge of being a homeless burden on the society that you are visiting. If you don’t have enough money to at least cover your food and accomodation expenses, you are hurting local restaurant business or crowding beautiful parks…all because you want a “cultural” experience. Not to mention, you are probably exacerbating negative impressions of Western culture (or wherever it is that you hail from).
Ok, stepping off the soap box
Anyway, the point is: For me, research is the key to my travel happiness. I had to invest a lot of time and energy to at least feel like I had an elementary understanding of the history, culture, and environment of the countries on my itinerary. Properly planning pre-trip self-education is vital to getting the most out of your trip!