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A GOOD READ: Take a trip from your chair
The term “armchair travel” has a somewhat elastic definition, often encompassing memoir, history, anthropology and fiction in addition to what is recognized as straight travel writing.
Here are a few “classic” books that will inspire dreams of wandering (or perhaps, in some cases, nightmares):
The ancient Greek writer Herodotus is known as the “Father of History” but he is also certainly as much the father of travel writing. In his fifth century, B.C. Histories, he recounts the stories of the great events in the societies of the Mediterranean and western Asia he hears in his travels. Herodotus’ aim was to “set down to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements of both the Greeks and the Barbarians” but his method includes also recording local geography, politics and culture.
For something closer both in time and space, you may want to have a look at John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America. Steinbeck uses his account of a 1960 trip around the U.S.A. with his standard poodle in a camperized pickup truck as an opportunity to muse on the geography, character and culture of mid-20th century America (including the darker aspects, like rampant consumerism and racism). As he notes in the book, “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
In In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin tracks the origins of an alleged piece of brontosaurus skin brought back to England by a globetrotting distant relative. Chatwin’s vignettes of zigzagging across the tip of South America are laced with tall tales, fiction, fact and anecdotes, including an investigation into the final years of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This 1977 book has been credited with revolutionizing travel writing.
Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar chronicles his four-month, 28,000-mile trip from London to Japan and back via some of the world’s most famous trains (the Orient Express, the Frontier Mail, the Trans-Siberian Express and others) in the early 1970s. Theroux says that railways are, to him, “irresistible bazaars, snaking along perfectly level no matter what the landscape, improving your mood and speed, and never upsetting your drink.” Theroux’s book is in part a wry commentary on the countries he passes through and his fellow passengers, interspersed with incredibly lyrical descriptions.
As reviewers have noted, the title of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby is typical of his understated English humour. Newby’s month-long 1956 mountain climbing expedition in northeastern Afghanistan was neither short nor a “walk.” While the opening chapters make clear his reasons for wishing to escape his job in the London fashion industry, the choice of an excursion to Nuristan as method is not explained. His companion on the proposed trip suggests it would facilitate official paperwork if they claim they are going to climb nearby Mir Samir and such an endeavour might also be eligible for a small grant from the Everest Foundation. With four days of mountaineering training, the neophytes set off in a station wagon loaded with equipment and into travel writing history. This book appears in almost every list of “the best” travel books.
In Travels with Myself and Another, journalist, Martha Gellhorn describes her adventures in far-flung locales. This book depicts some of the “horror journeys” she undertook from the 1940s through the 1970s that she found much more interesting to write about than the pleasant ones.
You can find these titles and many other classic — and modern — travel books at your local library.
A Good Read is a column by Tri-City librarians that is published on Wednesdays. Michael DeKoven is deputy director of Port Moody Public Library.