The top 10 travel books of the century

The Modern Library's nonfiction list egregiously ignores travel literature. We redress the oversight.


Don George
May 19, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Travel writing is the Rodney Dangerfield of nonfiction. Despite the fact that, at its best, travel writing is extraordinarily complex and fulfilling -- encompassing person and place; history, art and culture; food and philosophy; essay and reportage -- it just can't get no respect. If it's about travel, conventional critical wisdom seems to say, it can't possibly be serious or substantial; it's the literary equivalent of the syrupy cocktail with the little paper parasol: Literature Lite.

My friend and colleague Thomas Swick, travel editor at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, lamented this fact in his column last Sunday:

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A few weeks ago the Modern Library came out with its list of the 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century and -- whaddya know -- travel writers were hard to find. No V.S. Naipaul, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux -- to mention a few of the better-known names -- not even any Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, or Lawrence Durrell, novelists whose greatest nonfiction works were books of travel. Naipaul and Theroux were handicapped by the fact that they are still alive (most of the writers who made the list aren't), but membership among the departed did not help Norman Douglas, Gerald Brenan, or Robert Byron -- three of the century's finest writers who, one gets the impression from literature's new synod, had the misfortune to specialize in travel.

As Swick points out, only four books that seem even tangentially related to travel made it to the Modern Library list: Rebecca West's book on Yugoslavia, "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" (38), George Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia" (42), Isak Dinesen's "Out of Africa" (58) and Beryl Markham's "West With the Night" (85).

Swick goes on to redress this absence with his own lists of the top 10 "sedentary" and "itinerant" travel books of the century. His column inspired me to think about my own list -- and I'd like to invite you to do the same. E-mail me your choices for the top 10 travel books of the century.

Putting this list together was an extremely pleasant task, forcing me to rummage through memory and then through assorted boxes and bookshelves. As I pulled the books out -- their dusty mustyness filling the air -- I felt as if I were opening doorways into the past.

The underlined passages in one book brought me back to my old office at Athens College in Greece. I remembered the creaky desk chair I sat in when I underlined them, the way the sunlight slanted through the green vines that curled outside my window and the dry, baking heat and flat Attic light that awaited outside.

The wine stains in another book conjured the six-table restaurant in Paris where I used to feast on steak, fries and the house red wine -- surreptitiously surveying the couples who cuddled in candlelit corners while I read and dreamed. I could hear the violinist on the sidewalk outside, could picture the flame-eater drawing crowds in the middle of the block and the streetlights shimmering on the surface of the Seine.

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Each book called forth fresh new scenes, until the world seemed infinitely tender and confusing, a jostling combination of goals achieved and wayward dreams.

In the end, I came up with a highly subjective list, shaped by the crevasses in my own reading and by the circumstances under which I read and remembered some of these works. (And inevitably, there were repetitions between this list and a selection of six great travel books I had recommended in a summer reading column two years ago.) For better or worse, here are my own choices for the top 10 travel books of the century.

1) "The Snow Leopard," by Peter Matthiessen. This profoundly moving work interweaves unforgettably vivid descriptions of a Himalayan climbing expedition with equally unforgettable passages of searing self-analysis and spiritual quest. In its stark humanity and its unvarnished yearning, its soul-open combination of epiphany and despair, fatigue and terror and triumph, "The Snow Leopard" enlightens and enriches on virtually every page. It can change your life, as it did mine.

2) "Journeys," by Jan Morris. Morris has written so many great travel books -- the monumental "Pax Britannica" trilogy and "The Matter of Wales," plus books on Venice, Oxford, Spain, Manhattan and Hong Kong, for starters -- that it's difficult to choose just one. But in the end I picked this collection of shorter pieces (other such collections include "Destinations," "Among the Cities" and "Travels") because it embodies the vast range of her talents: an ability to pierce right to the heart of a place and an acute eye and ear for the telling detail; a deep sympathy for both the quirky and the common; an encyclopedic knowledge; and an unparalleled musicality of language that allows her to modulate a reader's journey through page-long sentences without ever losing the trail of meaning.

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3) "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush," by Eric Newby. In this tale of a hastily assembled, hilariously -- and dangerously -- unprepared expedition into a remote region of Afghanistan, Newby personifies a particularly British kind of curiosity, pluck and good humor. And he describes the people and places he encounters with gusto and grace.

4) "Coming Into the Country," by John McPhee. McPhee brings to any subject he chooses -- from oranges to birch bark canoes -- exhaustive research, a meticulous eye and a deep-rooted passion. In this case, his subject is Alaska, and the resulting account of his travels there is the best Alaska book I have ever read. McPhee moves easily from mosquito-infested camp spots to politician-infested corridors, and manages to render with appreciation and precision the mundane complexities of Alaskan life, from fishing and gold mining to the search for a new state capital and everyday attitudes and rites in a bush outpost.

5) "The Great Railway Bazaar," by Paul Theroux. This exuberant adventure liberated a whole generation of travel writers and engendered the American version of a wonderful British literary tradition: the first-person travel narrative. Written before Theroux became the Great American Travel Writer, the book is engaging, ironic, opinionated and intelligent -- an idiosyncratic account of an idiosyncratic journey from London to Tokyo and back again almost entirely by train. As in all his books, Theroux's descriptions and dialogues are dead-on, but this work -- his first travel book -- also embodies a sense of wonder and unselfconscious zest that becomes harder and harder to find in his later travel books.

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6) "In Patagonia," by Bruce Chatwin. In this tale of wanderings in Patagonia, portrayed as "the uttermost part of the Earth," Chatwin eschews traditional narrative bridges and explications and presents instead a kind of Cubist portrait of the place: encounter layered upon encounter layered upon encounter. Through tale and legend, offered for the most part without analysis, Chatwin creates an unfiltered, poignant portrait of an isolated, rugged land and isolated, rugged settlers whose roots stretch to Europe and other exotic places, but whose worlds are purely Patagonian.

7) "Video Night in Kathmandu," by Pico Iyer. In this warm, wise and wide-eyed book, Iyer strings together a series of Asian portraits based on relatively quick journeys to Bali, Hong Kong, India, Thailand, the Philippines, China and Japan, among other places. An impressionable, thoughtful and eloquent pilgrim, Iyer limns Asia with an acute sensitivity to the nuances of intercultural contact, the dance of assumption and expectation that ensues whenever people from two different worlds choose to reach out to one another.

8) "No Mercy," by Redmond O'Hanlon. This big book recounts O'Hanlon's ambitious African expedition in search of Mokele-mbembe, a legendary lake-dwelling dinosaur. In a masterful looping, weaving, spinning narrative, O'Hanlon portrays the interminglings of two worlds -- science and spirit -- as the expedition ventures through desolate, disease-ridden villages, swamps and jungles into the rarely penetrated depths of the Congo. A compelling mix of natural history, self-deprecating humor and heartfelt humanity, O'Hanlon's narrative ultimately touches on some of the largest mysteries of connection and transformation that are at the heart of all great journeys.

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9) "Two Towns in Provence," by M.F.K. Fisher. The prototype for all the living-the-good-life-in-Europe books to come, this savory story is infused with Fisher's elegant and robust enjoyment of French culture, character and cuisine.

10) "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," by Robert M. Pirsig. OK, I can already hear the click-click-click of emails being written at the mere mention of this declasse pop classic. But consider this: It is the spring of 1976 and you have just passed the school year in Athens, Greece, on a teaching fellowship. You are fresh out of college and you are living in Greece and exploring Europe -- and exploring yourself.

You lived in Paris for the summer and read Hemingway, then you traveled to the Cote d'Azur and read Fitzgerald. Now you're in Greece and you've been reading Henry Miller and John Fowles' The Magus and Cavafy and Kazantzakis and Plato and then someone passes you this book by Robert Pirsig. You have been looking for answers to all the questions, and in this book you find them -- at least some of them.

This is a book about a journey across America, but strangely it is a book about your journey, too -- your European search for roots and meaning. Pirsig's descriptions make you nostalgic for an America you have never known. Even more importantly, his ruminations on the ancient Greeks and their sense of unity, of oneness, make intuitive sense to a young man who had been in an ivy-cloaked academy too long and is just learning that the academy of beach and pine, sleeping bag and ferry, ouzo and feta cheese, is a much better place to be.

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So that's my list. Many authors I was tempted to mention are included on Swick's lists -- Colin Thubron, Norman Douglas and Patrick Leigh Fermor, for example.

And then we could begin an entirely new category: great travel fiction. Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender Is the Night" and John Fowles' "The Magus" come immediately to mind -- and on and on.

Now I'm counting on you to tell me the many great travel books -- nonfiction and fiction too -- I haven't read and should.

Thomas Swick's top 10 travel books of the 20th century:

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Sedentary (writing about a place by an outsider who settles there):

1) "South from Granada," by Gerald Brenan. Young Englishman leaves home, settles in a small Andalusian village, and writes a book that takes travel writing out of its dilettante sphere and creates with it a kind of novelistic anthropology.

2) "The Last Time I Saw Paris," by Elliot Paul. This forgotten classic by an American journalist chronicles in fascinating detail the life of a small street in Paris' Latin Quarter that is a microcosm of France before the Second World War.

3) "Hunting Mister Heartbreak," by Jonathan Raban. Settling briefly in places as diverse as Manhattan, Key West, Alabama and Seattle, Raban gets to the heart and humor of America.

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4) "Old Calabria," by Norman Douglas. Not a resident, but he traveled so thoroughly and knowledgeably through this southernmost region of Italy that the book resounds with authority and critical admiration.

5) "Out of Africa," by Isak Dinesen. From the first sentence - "I had a farm in Africa" -- we are drawn into another place and time.

6) "Bitter Lemons," by Lawrence Durrell. A warm and anguished tale of the tragedy of Cyprus by one of the modern Mediterranean's most eloquent rhapsodists.

7) "Beyond Euphrates," by Freya Stark. A travel autobiography by the woman who was to the Arab world what Durrell was to the Mediterranean.

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8) "Down and Out in Paris and London," by George Orwell. Two gleaming capitals seen from the seedy side by a brilliant and unsentimental observer.

9) "Liebling Abroad," by A.J. Liebling. A collection by the great New Yorker writer who adopted France as his spiritual (and gustatory) home. Even with the war correspondence, you feel as if you're in the company of a jovially eccentric uncle who wears his considerable learning lightly.

10) "Two Towns in Provence," by M.F.K. Fisher. All the flavors and nuances of the region before it became synonymous with the good life.

Itinerant (writing about a place by an outsider who is just passing through):

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1) "A Time of Gifts," by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Young Englishman (again) sets off on a walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople and absorbs and assimilates everything in his path: customs, wildlife, architecture, languages. ("Between the Woods and the Water" is the second volume of this unfinished trilogy.)

2) "The Road to Oxiana," by Robert Byron. The critic Paul Fussell compared this account of a journey through the Middle East with Joyce's "Ulysses" and Eliot's "The Waste Land."

3) "A Dragon Apparent," by Norman Lewis. An exhaustive tour through Indochina by one of travel writing's greatest and least recognized practitioners.

4) "In Patagonia," by Bruce Chatwin. A quirky, elliptical work that showed the artistic heights that travel writing can ascend to.

5) "An Area of Darkness," by V.S. Naipaul. A study of India by the man who brought a moral intensity to the genre.

6) "Behind the Wall," by Colin Thubron. Thubron combines a keen intellect - he learned Mandarin before this trip to China - with an emotional depth that allows him not only to interpret but to connect.

7) "When the Going Was Good," by Evelyn Waugh. A collection of some of the funniest travel accounts ever written.

8) "Old Glory," by Jonathan Raban. Sailing down the Mississippi, Raban is as perceptive a traveler as he is subtle.

9) "Journey Without Maps," by Graham Greene. This account of a trek in West Africa incorporates memories of childhood and possesses a darkness that foreshadows Naipaul.

10) "The Great Railway Bazaar," by Paul Theroux. The rollicking train trip through Europe and Asia that demonstrated, once again, that it's not the sights, it's the people.


Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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