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Travel books

‘Tis the season

so relax when readingSummer is the season for departure. Some prepare for or relive a journey by reading travel texts; some stay-at-homes are happy in the hammock, crossing a border by turning a page. It’s fine to follow a guide’s written lead on where to stay and what to eat, and any bookstore worth its salt has a travel section stuffed with histories and maps.

I myself am soon to return to a region I used to know well (the South of France) and see what’s unchanging, what’s changed. All this has caused me to think about the genre — why voyage-books should be so popular on so many beaches and planes.

Travel writing is, I think, coeval with writing itself. We move and remember the place that we left. From a distance, we send letters home. Those scribes who first kept laundry lists in Nineveh or Babylon, those men in Egypt naming names belong to the one genre.

An account of journeys taken or a report at journey’s end, a message from the provinces or dispatch from the capital: Each must be written down. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Hindu epic Mahabharata, The Tale of Genji on his wanderings: All these report on departure and new terrain traversed. And there’s retentiveness also entailed. When the bear goes over the mountain to see what he can see, he carries with him — if he or she be a writer — a computer or quill pen.

A world of wonders

Divine Comedy, book coverIn the Western tradition of literature, the common denominator of The Odyssey and The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Canterbury Tales and The Divine Comedy — not to mention Don Quixote or Moby Dick or Faust — is near-constant motion. One way to read The Book of Genesis is to consider that expulsion as a journey out of Eden; the 40-year voyage of Moses is a hunt for promised land. So too is The Aeneid a travelogue that starts in Troy and ends hard years later in Rome.

“The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” are descriptions of water-logged distance traversed; Captain Cook and Magellan and Lewis & Clark get parsed now for their prose. Although we’re not certain how widely he traveled, Avon’s Bard set many of his plays abroad. It sometimes seems as though all texts we hold to be enduring ones evoke a world of wonders that at first passing seem strange . . .

This holds just as true for those who — like Jane Austen or Emily Dickinson — remain inside the house. Imagination need not be time- nor space-bound finally, and writing gets done at the desk. The stay-at-home may take invented trips — think of science fiction — or may, like Marcel Proust, remember where he lived when young: A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is a remembrance not only of time but scenes and places past. The writer might be imprisoned, as was Oscar Wilde in De Profundis or, like Charles Darwin, confined to a cabin on the H.M.S. Beagle — but each and all of them are travel writers in the largest sense: I have been there, witnessed it, and am come alone to tell thee what I saw.

Far and wide-eyed

Two strands seem worth disentangling in this common cloth. First, and perhaps most frequent, is the news sent back from a little known or rarely visited part of the world: a tribe or terrain that appears inhospitable, a record of hardships endured. The writer travels far and stares wide-eyed at landscape and behavior that feels foreign. The place and people merit describing, and though we no longer report on three-headed men or single-breasted women — on fire-breathing dragons, Loch Ness monsters, and the like — such travelogues traffic in distance, the wonder of what’s hard to find.

Almost by definition, this variety of travel writing depends on the first view. The voyager attains a promised end and does so once — or, possibly, buoyed by success and fame, not to mention an expense account, returns. The point is, however, that he or she goes as a stranger, and what’s remarkable in these accounts depends on first impressions: a freshness, an alertness, a view of something new. So it isn’t deep-rooted knowledge but an amateur’s enthusiasm that signals destination and establishes the tone. A great enough artist may be able to convey such alertness during a visit to London or Rome, but the odds are better if the place attained is Patagonia or Uttar Pradesh.

This sort of exploration is awestruck and improvisational; it reports on happy accident or unhappy being blown off course, and the writer profits from prior ignorance. Indeed, it’s almost a sine qua non of the genre; you can’t undertake a voyage to map your own hometown. Travel writing of this kind requires a physical distance — the wanderer on train or ship or camel-back or dogsled, going somewhere hard to get to, and for the first time. Whatever he or she reports is more than what was known before, or we as readers knew.

When in Rome…

The Aeneid book coverBy contrast are those books that deal with semi-permanence in a “New Found Land.” This is the sort of account — think of Peter Mayle or Francis Mayes — where the stranger settles down and reports on what it means to grow acclimatized to Provence or Tuscany. Here the narrative arc almost always consists of ignorance that yields to understanding, a bedazzled attraction to a place that soon will deepen to love.

This variety of book is less about wandering than sitting still, but it too belongs to the genre. It propounds the relativist’s credo: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” And it seems powered by the elegiac impulse rather more than by astonishment. It reports on custom embraced rather than in shock recorded, with incremental pleasure as the writer settles in. There’s a standard shift of attitude: What at first felt nonsensical starts to make sense. What at first required explaining grows, with familiarity, clear.

Much more to say and write, much more to read. But now it’s time to pack.


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