If the subject interests you now or later, or you know someone going there, here are some recommendations from among my favorites that I read. I found them from a range of sources - Lonely Planet, friends, browsing bookstores, online recommendations. An authoritative list would include other works, like the Cairo trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz, but I tried reading the first (Palace Walk) and couldn't get into it. I also found modern fictional work Zaat's mixture of headlines and storyline creative but laborious, and Fight Club-esque Being Abbas El Abd way too weird while mercifully short.
Here are my favorite books that I read relating to Egypt and its environs. After adding so many - more than I anticipated - I broke them up into time periods.
There are two great ancient history books by Barbara Mertz, a novelist and Egyptologist who has a knack for bringing mummies back to life (I'd have read more if only she had written others):
It's hard to find a more fun read about Egypt than Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile. It is absolutely dated, but immensely entertaining, and it captures a lot of the beauty of the country. (Amazon, Borders)
I have two recommendations for folklore, both of which written relatively recently but chronicling a history much older with stories that evolved over time, so they don't fit in neatly to one time period:
- A new translation and compilation of the tales of Kalila and Dimna by Ramsay Wood (introduced by Doris Lessing) is purely brilliant storytelling, as fables unfold within fables. I can't wait to read this one again. As Lessing introduces it, it's one of the great world classics that the Western world largely forgot about; you'll want to thank Wood for bringing it back. (Amazon, Borders)
- A more academic approach on the history of Arabian folklore comes from Hasan M. El-Shamy's Folktalkes of Egypt. He traveled the country recording a wide range of storytellers and captured some of the land's oral history, as well as its humor. (Amazon, BN.com)
Modern Egyptology and Anthropology (1800s-1950)
I read two books that focused on Howard Carter, the brash Egyptologist who discovered King Tut's tomb, but never could enjoy the glory he spent his life hoping to achieve:
- Daniel Meyerson's In the Valley of the Kings is a page-turning biography of Carter that also spends ample time bringing to life the partners and rivals he faced. For straight history, read this one. (Amazon, Borders)
- The Murder of King Tut is a new work by novelist James Patterson, written with Martin Dugard. Patterson can't resist making himself a main character of the story, which is one weakness. The other is that he spends much of the book in a flashback to Tut's life with little material to go on, so much of it seems like fiction. My final gripe is that his conclusion on why Tut was murdered, which is why he said he wrote the book, unravels with no particular support, and no attempt to see how that theory compares with other possibilities, even if it is plausible. Despite all of that, if you can suspend disbelief, it's a good deal of fun, and it does paint a picture of both ancient Egypt and the time of Howard Carter. (Amazon, Borders)
While really about Saudi Arabia and not Egypt, I checked out Wilfred Thesiger's classic Arabian Sands about the five years he spent largely living with the Bedu (or Bedouins) in the late 1940s, exploring parts of the desert no Westerner had seen and meeting them largely before Western society impacted their lives. It's one of those travelogues that makes you wish you could see it firsthand, and simultaneously make you thankful for your comforts of home. (Amazon, Borders)
Pre- and Post-Revolutionary (1940s-50s)
Not surprisingly, Col. Nasser's coup that overthrew King Farouk in 1952 was a focal point both for literature and memoirs.
Beer in the Snooker Club is a decent look at Egyptian high society in the 1950s - not an amazing read, but an Egyptian classic from what I found, and memorable. Very quick read, and it does capture the period, both as perceived in Egypt and in England. (Amazon, Borders)
The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit is a wonderful, poignant memoir by Lucette Lagnado who grew up in Egypt in the mid 20th century. (Amazon, Borders)
Out of Egypt by Andre Aciman is also about a family's departure from Egypt, especially sad at times but full of great characters - though some of his best appear too sparingly. If you read just one memoir about growing up in and departing 20th century Egypt, read Sharkskin. (Amazon, Borders)
If you're into politics and current events, read Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East by Robin Wright, covering Egypt and a number of other countries, reviewing how they fare with democratic institutions and a free press, and what obstacles are in their way. (Amazon, Borders)
The one must-read for modern fiction is The Yacoubian Building, a very progressive and risque look at a couple generations of Egyptians in a building in 1990s Cairo. It's just great storytelling. (Amazon, Borders)
To get a taste of modern Cairo, read Taxi by Khaled Al Khamissi. He interviewed dozens of cab drivers a few years ago, and it's great local color, covering everything from their personal lives to government gripes. (Amazon, Borders)There you go. I welcome other suggestions in the comments and hope you'll come back to this list if the occasion strikes you.