Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Calgon, Take Me Away: Travel Reading, Anyone?

This morning has dawned cool and clear, that crisp spring feeling is back in the air.  Last night's light frost has begun to melt into mist on the ground.

And the travel itch is calling to me.  At least, the armchair travel itch is calling, anyway.

Life is not cooperating for any lengthy travel right now -- between scheduling and assorted life craziness at the moment, it would not be advisable. 

But an armchair journey, transported on the pages of a book filled with the imagery of sights and sounds and smells of lands far away from my cozy home?  Now that would be heavenly and perfect.

I could use a little diversionary travel reading at the moment.  Especially with some meaty bits of history and intrigue mixed into the fray.

My favorite travel writers tend to have a lyric writing style that draws the reader in as a passenger alongside their adventures.  The ones where you feel like you've been served a cuppa hot tea in the train compartment right along with the writer as he inks the next page in his travel journal and tries to keep his temper at repeated interruptions from the drunk in the compartment next door.

If it includes some classical or ancient history along the road?  So much the better.  Humor and ancient history mixed together in a travel book is an intoxicating, heady mix for me as a reader.

Colin Thubron's Shadow of the Silk Road is an exceptional example of the sort of work that draws me in, beckoning and beguiling with its ancient turrets and secrets that emerge along the the way of a modern day Marco Polo's journey from the present in search of the lessons of the past.

The same is true for his Lost Heart of Asia, which goes right past the meat and into the gristle of a region we in the West tend to have no picture of at all. Which is a shame given its strategic importance over the centuries and our dabbling in its politics in the present day.

I love a book that teaches me while it draws me in with imagery so vivid that I feel as though I am almost there.

One of my all-time favorites for sheer snarky attitude and travel wonkery is Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China.  I have always had a fascination with a train journey, ever since I was a wee child, and his description of the insanity and amazement that comes along with his journey is divine.

I once read the entire book while taking the train to Manhattan's Penn Station from Pittsburgh and back again -- it was heaven.

Mr. ReddHedd doesn't like the fact that Mr. Theroux can be sharp and nasty about idiocy at times, but I recognize my own inner snottiness in his -- I'm just more apt to suppress mine for politeness sake, but that doesn't mean it isn't there.   Theroux's more recent efforts -- Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar and Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown -- show a man who has mellowed a bit and gotten wiser with age, not just about the faults and virtues of those around him in his travels, but also of his own faults and frailties as a person among a sea of other flawed individuals.

I find the personal evolution of someone I've read for a long while to be almost as fascinating as the details of their journey, sometimes more so. Dark Star Safari in particular highlights Theroux's own inner evolution and his still-acerbic ability to dissect fools and charlatans very well indeed. It is a read that will pull you along and make you wish for more at its end, and Theroux is at his cranky best letting loose on missionaries driving new cars while refusing rides in the middle of nowhere to the very villagers they are paid to help who had the misfortune of a car breakdown.

I love travel books that teach me things well outside my usual day to day. Jason Elliot's An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan is such a book, as is Rory Stewart's The Places In Between.

I blame Isak Dinesen, whose masterful Out of Africa -- her memoir of her time living in Kenya -- pulled me in from the very first sentence. It didn't hurt that I was introduced to her work through the luminous performance of Meryl Streep in the movie of the same name.

Some of my best travel reads have been ones I stumbled onto in used book stores, random gems amid a sea of flotsam most of the time -- but what a treasure to pull of a shelf. Ionia: A Quest by Freya Stark was one such find. Among the Tibetans by Isabella Bird Bishop was another.

Other favorite discoveries have been gifts, mostly from Mr. ReddHedd who knows well my penchant for travel reading. Peter Hessler's River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze was a wonderful find of his a few years ago, and I've gone on to read many other books that Peter has written including his fascinating portrait of China, past and present, in Oracle Bones.

But I know there have to be many more travel and pilgrimage writers out there who are yet to be discovered. Recommendations would be most welcome -- do tell who you are reading lately and how you are enjoying it!

I recently stumbled across a list of travel books that are beloved by a broad swath of folks.  I wonder if any of you have read any of these that I haven't mentioned and, if so, which were a delight and which dragged on forever for you?  Please do tell!

(Photo via Jonathan Kos-Read.  Love this shot -- it's so evocative of searching and yearning, and makes me want to know what is just down that hill so badly.  Beautiful work!)

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