W.S. Merwin is one of my literary heroes. When I was an undergraduate in New Jersey, I wrote my senior thesis on his poetry and went so far as to track down his apartment in New York, where I knocked on the door, waited with my heart in my throat as someone padded down the hallway, and met -- his brother. So when I heard that he had a new book out, and that it was about Hawaii, where he has been living for years, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. Eventually it arrived, and as soon as I could carve out a few free moments, I began reading. About 15 minutes and 10 pages later, I realized that I wasn't an undergraduate anymore, and that in the intervening years, I had fallen out of poetry-reading practice. I just couldn't stay with it. "The Folding Cliffs" is 325 pages of densely textured and modulated poetry -- a narrative of 19th century Hawaii, no less -- and by Page 11 I was on brain overload.
I mention this here because it helps explain why I like anthologies so much these days. Anthologies break literature down into easily digestible, bite-size pieces. They're perfect for someone in my stage of life, where almost all reading gets done in airports, on airplanes or in those increasingly shorter moments between my kids' bedtime and the time I nod off myself. Such disjointed snatches do not lend themselves to sustained narratives and especially not to epic poems -- you're always having to backtrack to remember who the characters are and where they've been so far.
Happily enough, travel anthologies seem to be experiencing something of a mini-boom these days. The Travelers' Tales team has published dozens of anthologies in the past few years; Lonely Planet brought out its well-received "Brief Encounters" last year; and last month two bi-coastal writer-wanderers, Bruce Northam and Brad Olsen, produced a collection of wanderlust-inspired tales called "In Search of Adventure."
I have been intrigued by this anthology since I heard about it almost a year and a half ago, when Northam and Olsen first contacted me about contributing a story. Eventually I did send a story in, one of my Salon columns called "Sleepless in Siena," and I am pleased to note that it is included in the collection, along with articles by a number of other writers whose work has been published in Salon over the past two years: Tim Cahill, Simon Winchester, Jeff Greenwald, Linda McFerrin, Mary Roach and Anne Cushman among them.
This fact alone made me eager to see the finished book. Even more importantly, I loved the idea of the anthology: collecting tales that move far beyond the standard Sunday travel section where-to-stay and what-to-see articles to venture into the heart and soul of travel itself; stories about the crazy predicaments that off-the-beaten-path travelers get into, the weird challenges the world throws their way, the unexpected peaks and lonelinesses of the wide-open road. I had high expectations for this book -- perhaps too high.
"In Search of Adventure" is somewhat loosely organized into 13 chapters. Their headings give some sense of the range and attitude of the book as a whole: Simply Amazing, So That's How It Works, Mistaken Identity, Serendipity and Friendship, Global Issues & Viewpoints, Boy Was I a Bonehead or What? Intimacy, Inner Quest, Intrepid Archetypes, Trampled Underfoot, Beginnings, Thrifty Travel Savvy and Going Home.
The stories cover just about every aspect of adventurous travel -- the gamut of health problems, cultural gaps and gaffes, gritty hardships and life-changing connections.
The problem with the collection is that, as with most odysseys, the final product is wildly varied. There are a number of indifferent meals and forgettable monuments, some illuminating encounters and indelible lessons, a few seemingly endless nights set to the high whine of mosquitoes and a few real epiphanies.
The story we excerpt today, "Santorini Style," is, to my mind, the star of the book. Other stories I particularly enjoyed include Tim Cahill's tale of a horseback trip across Mongolia to collect hair samples (don't ask -- just remember that anything by Tim Cahill is worth reading); Anne Cushman's story about lugging an expensive Powerbook through electricity-less villages in India ("as overqualified and useless as a Ph.D. at an orgy"); Mary Roach's account of the annual tomato-throwing festival in Bunol, Spain; and Jay Golden's tale of willing his way into India without a visa.
All in all, the anthology has a kind of home-grown feel to it. The text is marred here and there by grammatical hiccups and typographical errors. And there is a laxness to the prose that rankles the editor in me. Very few of the pieces really work as stories. Many are disconnected snippets or scenes. The pieces that are long enough to allow character and plot development often don't seem to go anywhere, or take so long getting there that I lose interest.
But if I listen to just the editor in me, I miss the point. If you think of this anthology as a campfire compendium, the kind of journal-cum-jam-session story-swapping that backpackers around the world indulge in, then you can forgive the editorial lapses. The traveler in me revels in these tales of fellow adventurers hungering around the globe in search of challenges, encounters, mind-widening and spirit-tempering journeys.
Reading this book makes me recall all kinds of people and places -- I think of the mysterious white woman I saw combing long blond hair on a sunny porch in the middle of the Sumatran jungle, a dream vision glimpsed from a bus window; of the spiders bigger than dinner platters that bobbed between trees on my first night in Dar-es-Salaam; of the enchanting woman who met me in the elevator of a hotel in Malacca as if she had been waiting for me, gave me a three-hour tour of the town and then suddenly said she had to leave to meet her husband; of the afternoon I galloped on an Arabian stallion into the Sahara, until the world became an endless sea of sand.
All these come rushing back to me. And that's the real strength of this book -- that the editors had the courage to embark on this border-crossing adventure in publishing and lived to bring back a collection of extraordinary memories, memories that conjure our own most moving journeys and make us hunger for more.