3
Sep 04

It’s funny

Blog 7Post a comment • 488 views

It’s funny that Tom’s travel writing malaise inspired this month’s Blog 7 theme, because my love of travel writing is precisely what piqued my interest in the blog. That’s not to say that I disagree that the “travel writing” shelves at most book stores are pretty dire– for every Bruce Chatwin, there are ten Sarah Turnbulls. But the best travel writers are able to combine narrative with history, sociology and politics better than any other genre I can think of. Patrick Marnham’s “In Search of Amin” from Granta, for example, is scary and hillarious while offering more insight into Idi Amin’s Uganda than a dry history ever could alone.

But dry travel writing is a lot of fun as well! Jan Morris is hardly the world’s most exciting transsexual, but she still paints a hell of a picture of the world in Among The Cities using straight description (no pun intended) and history. Her detailed book on Sydney is fascinating, especially when read next to her less than flattering pieces on the city from 1954 and 1982.

V.S Naipaul used the genre for his hateful screeds Among The Believers and An Area of Darkness. Paul Theroux often shared his old friend’s disdain for the places he travelled, most satisfyingly in Kingdom By The Sea. Theroux’s curmudgeonliness works best in this take on the English seaside.

Tony Horwitz usually finds a middle ground between the “travel teaches me about the world” and “travel teaches me about me” schools of thought. In that way, I guess, he’s like Bill Bryson without the cornball schtick. One For The Road, in which Horwitz hitchhikes around the Australian outback, is his best pure travel novel. But Confederates in the Attic is his most complete work. Horwitz uses travel, both through Southern capitals and with a band of Civil War reenactors, to articulate the last effects of the War on America’s south. The travel narrative fleshes out what would otherwise be a fairly mundane theme.

A quick glance at the authors I’ve mentioned pretty clearly illustrates the genre’s biggest shortcoming–travel writing is largely written and read by a pretty limited group of people; those who can afford to travel (and more often than not, contribute to Granta). Paul Theroux will never be able to tell me as much about Nigeria as Amos Tutoula. But the fact that the genre is limited hardly means it’s useless. Travel writing works best within the context of more knowledgeable sources. Half the fun in reading about a neophyte’s travels is revelling in the mistakes and predjudices.

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