I am not sure which books backpackers carry with them these days so this list may be a little out of date. The concept of backpacker books goes back to the days of the hippy trail when travellers would carry such classics as the I Ching, the Tibetan Book of the Dead or anything by Herman Hesse. A backpacker classic should have an element of profundity, preferably mystical -if not it should have cult status or be a statement about who you really are. There is an element of self discovery in setting off - the path to enlightenment, the journey inwards...A backpacker book is not a 'beach read'--the book must be worth the weight and space it takes up and should be reverentially handed on to other travellers or left in a hotel or bus station for another seeker to chance upon. I have garnered this list from my own experience of buying books from travellers, various lists on the web (one at Amazon) and an enormous thread about which books people would leave on a bus. In no particular order here goes:
Jack Kerouac. On the Road
Peter Mathiessen. Snow Leopard (essential reading in the high deserts of Nepal)
Joseph Heller. Catch 22
Herman Hesse. Siddhartha (also Glass Bead Game, Magister Ludi, and Steppenwolf)
Yann Martel. Life of Pi
Pirsig- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
J. D. Salinger. Catcher in the Rye
Thomas Pynchon. Gravity's Rainbow
Zafon. The Shadow of the Wind. ('full of cheesy splendour' Stephen King)
Ken Kesey. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest
John Fowles. The Magus.
Vikram Seth- A Suitable Boy (for a very long journey)
Milton. Paradise Lost
The Holy Bible (King James version)
Paulo Coelho. The Alchemist
Alex Garland. The Beach (backpacker's novel about backpacking-- a great read)
Thomas Mann. The Magic Mountain (for the backpacker of the past, the wandervogel with his rucksack on his back...)
Gabrial Garcia Marquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude
George Eliot. Middlemarch (panorama of history category -still popular)
James Joyce. Ulysses (Odyssey thin paper version)
Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness (a short story so add 'Lord Jim')
Tolstoy. War & Peace
Gunter Grass. The Tin Drum
Kahlil Gibran- The Prophet (“Keep me away from the wisdom which does not cry, the philosophy which does not laugh and the greatness which does not bow before children.”) NB there is a spoof by 'Kellog Allbran'
Jules Verne. Around the World in Eighty Days (why not?)
Patrick Suskind. Perfume
Umberto Eco. Name of the Rose( also Foucault's Pendulum)
Virginia Woolf. To the Lighthouse
Irvine Welsh. Trainspotting.
Tolkien. The Hobbit (sometimes seen read until it has fallen apart)
Bolano. The Savage Detectives (heavy)
Dan Brown. The Da Vinci Code (light)
Maldoror & A Rebours (for the decadent traveller)
Shakespeare. King Lear ( a teacher at my school read it every morning or so he said)
The Duke of Pirajno. A Cure for Serpents (for the traveller in Libya)
Di Lampedusa's deathless 'The Leopard' - another book by an Italian duke. Why can't any of our dukes write a decent book?
Tao te Ching
Popol Vuh: A Sacred Book of the Maya
Cormac McCarthy. All The Pretty Horses
Perec. Life - A User's Manual
Melville. Moby Dick.
Richard Bach. Jonathan LIvingstone Seagull
Emily Bronte. Wuthering Heights (probably has added resonance read on a coral strand in Tahiti)
Aldous Huxley. Brave New World
Wiliam Golding. Lord of the Flies (file under 'dystopian travel')
Louis de la Berniere. Captain Coreli's Mandolin (if you insist)
Bulgakov. Master and Margarita (Mick Jagger's favourite book)
The Story of O (for the erotic traveller)
Donleavy. The Ginger Man.
Robert Anton Wilson. The Illuminatus Trilogy
B.S. Johnson. Travelling People
Bubbling under are a few names like Eckhart Tolle, Carlos Castaneda, Meister Eckhart, Dickens's Bleak House (to remind one of damp old England) William Gass, John Barth, Haruki Murakami, Edith Wharton, The Chalice and the Blade, Rudyard Kipling, The Celestine Prophecy, Atomised, Black Elk Speaks, Divine Comedy, White Goddess, Das Energi, Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Margaret Atwood, Alice Sebold, WG Sebald, Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, Man without Qualities, Goethe, Proust, Ballard (Terminal Beach) Leaves of Grass, Vonnegut, Dick, Gatsby and for a bit of a laugh P.G. Wodehouse, Flann O Brien or Waugh's 'Vile Bodies.
I remember seeing a guy at Milan's cathedral like central station sitting on the steps half way through John Livingston Lowes' 'The Road to Xanadu' - a weighty study of how Coleridge came to write his greatest poems. It seemed a good choice for a book to read on a journey -- as Toby Litt says "...its argument, that Coleridge had one of the most extraordinary minds the world has ever seen, is there on every page." He seemed oblivious to the rest of the teeming world lost in Lowes' deep investigation into the creative process. Wherever he was heading from Stacchini's gargantuan stazione ('bombastic splendor') he had good company for a 1000 miles or so. Bon Voyage or 'Latcho Drom' as the gypsies say.