“Books make great gifts because they have whole worlds inside of them, and it’s much cheaper to buy somebody a book than it is to buy them the whole world!” —Neil Gaiman
Friends, I don’t want to scare you, but there are just 12 days left before Christmas. (And if you celebrate Hanukkah, you don’t even have that many.) Are you ready?
I was chatting with one of my officemates yesterday about which holiday traditions we love, and which we try to avoid. She’s a decorator—loves filling her home with holiday cheer. Me? Unless I’m hosting a big party, I hang a fresh wreath on the wall and call it good. (We live in a small space with a curious cat. A tree would take up room we don’t have and invite all kinds of trouble.)
But I love to choose presents for people. I love to think about my loved ones—what they enjoy, what makes them unique—and then match them with something unexpected and personal. More often than not, given my day job and personal hobbies, it’s a book.
If you’re a book giver, too, the holidays are a chance to share your love of all things Camino…or to drop a not-so-subtle hint to a special person you think should consider a pilgrimage of their own in the future (and take you along). But there are about 13,000 books available online about the Camino de Santiago. How do you even start to choose the right ones?
Well, here’s my stab at a gift guide for you: my 12 favorite books about walking the classic pilgrimage routes of Europe. (Spoiler: not all of them are in Spain.) I’m not saying that these are the BEST Camino books out there, because I haven’t read everything out there. But these are books I’ve read and enjoyed, from poetry to novels to guidebooks to memoirs, and each would make a delightful holiday gift for someone (including yourself).
(No, I’m not recommending my own book, because that just seems tacky. If you’ve found this website, you probably already know about it, anyway. But if you wanted to buy a gift copy or two, I can still mail you a signed bookplate to put inside…)
Right. On to the 12 Camino Books of Christmas:
- The bestseller: A Pilgrimage to Eternity by Timothy Egan
I know I said I’d read every book on this list, but what I meant was that I’ve read every book except this one. I picked up a copy a couple of weeks ago at a local book signing, and it’s currently waiting its turn on my coffee table at home. But since every review I’ve seen is glowing, and every bookseller seems to love it, I feel confident saying that this book by an already bestselling author will be thoughtful and well-written. Egan brings the practice of pilgrimage to the mainstream, and is a great choice for those people on your list who want “that book I heard about on TV.”
- The longest distance traveled: The Crossway by Guy Stagg
Guy Stagg set out one New Years Day from Canterbury, England, and he walked…and walked…and walked…all the way to Jerusalem. This is ultra-pilgrimage, crossing seasons and seas and politically unstable areas in search of answers. Stagg dives deep into both history and his own inner journey, offering a book that’s dense, intimate, and, so far, overlooked in the United States. Great for history lovers and adventure travel readers (the ones who like stories of life-threatening mountain climbs and encounters with armed insurgents).
- The classic: To the Field of Stars by Kevin Codd
Ask a bunch of pilgrims what book inspired their journey, and I bet Kevin Codd’s memoir of the Camino Francés will come up most often. An American priest with a gentle spirit and a quick humor, Kevin’s stories of blisters and camaraderie, spiritual moments and all-too-human mistakes, have drawn English readers to Spain for more than a decade. This is the perfect introduction for someone who doesn’t know much about the Camino de Santiago.
- The sequel: Beyond Even the Stars by Kevin Codd
These days, it seems every groundbreaking story gets a sequel, and I’m delighted that Father Codd wrote his. Published last year, this is the story of Codd’s second Camino journey, this time starting from his home in Belgium. It’s far more introspective—the questions are bigger, the challenges harder, and the moments of beauty more captivating. Great for those who loved his first book, or those who are looking for a story that stretches beyond the traditional Camino Francés.
- 5 golden guidebooks: Village to Village Guides
I’ve used Brierley’s guides, and Cicerone guides, and the hilariously named Miam Miam Dodo. But I haven’t found a book yet that captures the practical aspects of Camino trails the way that David Landis and his team at Village to Village Guides do. When I used their Camino del Norte guidebook in 2018, I had people from all over the world peeking over my shoulder to find out what “the good book” recommended. Great gift for those who are seriously planning (or considering) a walk on Camino Francés, Camino del Norte, Camino Primitivo, Camino Ingles, or Camino Portugues.
- The Scottish perspective: Travels With a Stick by Richard Frazer
I met Richard Frazer this fall, when we shared a stage at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. He’s a minister of the Church of Scotland, a tradition with a history of dismissing pilgrimage, but he’s taken the lead in trying to resurrect the old traditions. He set out to walk from Le Puy to Santiago, like me, and there are so many familiar places in his book that made me miss the beauty of a pilgrimage in French countryside. His writing traces the thoughts and emotional journey of a man walking in a new place, catching his breath after long years of service. Great for a reader pondering the spiritual connections of the Camino, and for those facing life changes (like retirement).
- The all-American experience: Pilgrim Strong by Steve Watkins
Steve Watkins walked the Camino Francés just a few months after I did, but we have often joked that the year written on our Compostelas is where our comparisons end. Steve walked alone, in winter, and documented it all on social media. His memoir about the experience digs deep into what he thought and felt along the way, and how the Camino changed him personally. As I said in my endorsement when the book came out, “Steve invites readers to join his highest highs and his lowest lows, and in the process to reconsider the very meaning and source of human strength.” A great gift for readers looking to explore how a month-long solo journey can affect the heart and soul.
- The poetry: Pilgrim by David Whyte
Need a whole different way to think about the Way of Saint James? How about poetry? I’ve been a little obsessed with David Whyte’s book Pilgrim ever since I heard his TEDTalk and read his poem Finisterre, which captured the heart of the bittersweet ending. These are the words to give a reader who revels in language and who loves the art of the journey.
- The novel: Rebirth by Kamal Ravikant
I’m actually surprised there aren’t more novels about the Camino. This one, released in 2018, is more a fable, a semi-autobiographical, semi-mystical story of wisdom and reflection in the form of Paulo Coehlo’s classic The Pilgrimage. It’s inspiring, thought-provoking, and will appeal to those searching for the spirit of the Camino.
- The YA novel: Beneath Wandering Stars by Ashlee Cowles
Have a teenager in your life who needs a good story? (Or an adult?) Here it is. Gabi is a 17-year-old Army kid who’s suffered a terrible loss, and the grief drives her to do a very un-American teenager thing: she sets out to walk the Camino. I love these characters, and how much the author clearly knows what she’s talking about–the Camino, life as an Army kid, life as a teenager–and yet lets her character’s story roam. Great for fiction readers of all ages.
- The book that sent me to France: Pilgrimage to the End of the World by Conrad Rudolf
Here’s the most obscure book on my list, but it’s one I’ve talked about before. This is the book that first introduced me to the Way of Saint James…and defined it as a walk that started in Le Puy. Going back and re-reading it this year, I was struck by how beautiful the language is. It’s more a series of short essays, rather than a whole step-by-step travelogue, and that’s just what some people on your list will want. They want to sample the Camino, not recreate it.
- The screen version: I’ll Push You by Patrick Gray and Justin Skeesuck
Yes, I know. Not everyone wants to read. Some people prefer to see their stories unfold on a screen. No judgment here. If you’re shopping for someone who prefers screens to pages, consider I’ll Push You, the inspiring story of two lifelong friends, one now bound to a wheelchair, who trekked the Camino Frances together—one pushing the other. I’m told the audio book version of this story is fantastic, and the documentary is one of the rare instances where I’ll say the movie is better than the book.
Whew, that’s quite a list! But I’m barely touching the surface. What am I missing? What are you giving people this year as a way to share the Camino?
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