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On the components of a good travel book

August 8, 2011

Good travel books aren’t merely concerned with listing the monuments and restaurants of far-off places. A good travel book informs you lightly about distant places but also presents you with the author’s own inner travels. Examples of good travel writers are Mark Twain, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux’s earlier works, and Jonathan Raban. In each case the author takes hard data and redistributes it through his or her own lens of personality and writing ability.

A good example of a recent travel experience is found in Colin Thubron’s new book about his trip to Tibet’s Holy Mountain, Mount Kailas, an excerpt from which can be found at http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2011/feb/12/mount-kailas-tibet-colin-thubron. In this excerpt he begins by matter-of-factly presenting information about the mountain and the thousands of people who are drawn to it, but then he begins to talk with and ask questions of the countless pilgrims who are circling the mountain. All of them are experiencing difficulties, both physical and spiritual; and the more conversations he records the more we gain a sense of the immensity of the task and the endurance of the pilgrimage. The trip to the mountain ends by being a metaphor for the travails of human existence. In the hands of a lesser writer this trip might have been written up solely as statistics about the height of the mountain, time and expense involved in getting there, and recommendations for the nearest hostel.

Mark Twain wrote a great series of travel books including “Roughing It,” “A Tramp Abroad,” and “Following the Equator.” His “Innocents Abroad” mirrors the young man himself: optimistic, ignorant, amusing and adventurous. In it he pokes fun at tourists who know nothing and can’t appreciate the art unless they have a travel guide to consult, but he makes clear that he is one of these tourists himself. Bill Bryson’s books are in some ways akin to Twain’s, for as he explores England in “Notes from a Small Island” he makes it very clear that he carries mental baggage with him that is distinctly American.  Like Twain, by describing the often-baffling events that a traveler can meet with in a foreign land, Bryson both reinforces our sense of ourselves and simultaneously pokes fun at it.

Rick Steves writes countless ordinary travel guides for Americans in Europe, but they are far more personable than, for instance, the Michelin guides, because he allows characteristic moments of humor and insight to color his books. He begins by stressing the importance of polite behavior and reminds us to bear in mind that the world is home to six billion people, all of whom are equally important, which hopefully will make tourists regard street vendors and beggars in a more kindly manner. Under the “eating out” section in his phrase books he provides phrases for those who have dietary restrictions that need to be explained to foreign servers, which include not only “I can not eat dairy” and “I have a gluten intolerance,” but also “I eat only insects.”

I’m currently reading a free EPUB book that I downloaded for my Nook, which had a title that I could not resist: “How to Enjoy Paris in 1842.” I have no idea who the author was, one M. Herve, but he was possessed of great originality that continually shows through in his descriptions. In describing the great church of the Madeleine in Paris he praises its beauty but points out that the stones of the exterior columns lose much of their beauty due to the joins between the blocks being so visible, breaking up the sense of solidity and giving the viewer an impression of a number of cheeses piled atop each other, or “the joints of a caterpillar.” Observations like this are liberally sprinkled throughout the text. I will never again be able to look at a lofty pillar without examining it to see if it resembles a caterpillar.

In short, a good travel book takes you out of your armchair, provides you with a travel companion who does not become tedious, and leaves you with reflections that you did not possess before. The outward journey is always mirrored by the inner journey in such books.

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