Travel writing is a popular genre. We live in an age of travel, where it is easy to plan a sojourn to the most remote of locations. Most people today hardly give a thought to the fact that their routine international destinations of travel were, until very recently, accessible only by ship or overland travel. Even as late as the 1860s, the source of the Nile River in Africa was unknown.
The ease of travel has greatly expanded the walls of our species’ Petrie dish, but has only infrequently raised levels of wisdom commensurate with these boundaries. The obese dullard that is your neighbor, for example, has probably been to Singapore, blissfully unaware that the bones of Second World War POWs at Changi Prison lie compressed under the tarmac at the city’s international airport. Likewise, the modern globe-trotter pokes his nose curiously amid the chambers and tunnels of the Great Pyramid, clad in biker shorts, wondering how all those great stones fell into place so precisely.
Most modern travelers carry their ignorance about themselves as a protective cloak, ever ready to ward off the threat of uncomfortable knowledge.
But enough of these matters. We will discuss the three general varieties of travel writing.
1. The first type of travel writing is the direct, straight-forward “travel guide” intended as a practical aid to travelers. The journey is described in a linear fashion, with specific dates, places, environments, and experiences faithfully related. These types of books are useful as long as the reader expects no great revelations from them. Utilitarianism is the rule here, rather than insight.
2. The second type of travel book is what I would call the “historico-geographical” tour type of book. This kind of book is rare in modern literature. We find it more in classical or Renaissance writings.
The geographical guides of Strabo and Pausanias fall into this category. Also in this category is the classic account of the medieval Moslem traveler Ibn Battuta. His book, called the Travels, is an incredible account of a man who spent most of his adult life in travel; he ranged all across North Africa, the Near East, and even made it to China. A Renaissance example of this genre is Biondo Flavio’s excellent Italia Illuminata.
The historico-geographical guide describes different cities and geographic regions, and relates historical anecdotes, regional stories, and other such interesting trivia for the reader. Flavio’s Italia Illuminata is packed with classical quotations, stories, and amusing asides about each and every region he describes, as he ranges across the entire Italic peninsula.
3. The third type of travel book is the “personal discovery” type of account. The author visits a certain place, or makes some sort of journey, and in the process makes profound observations about himself or his locale. The goal here is not so much to impart information about the placed traveled in; the goal is to explore deeper psychological or moral themes. This type of travel account is relatively new in world literature.
In this genre, I like D.H. Lawrence’s travel accounts in Italy. He wrote three short books in this vein: Twilight in Italy, Sea and Sardinia, and Sketches of Etruscan Places. His observations are always of a very penetrating and unorthodox nature. For Lawrence, the simplest observation or encounter is a sufficient springboard for him to launch into some human moral truth. And he is almost always right. Here, for example, in Sea and Sardinia, he turns an observation on a peasant costume into an anthropological truism:
How fascinating it is…to see these limbs in their close knee-breeches, so definite, so manly, with the old fierceness in them still. One realizes, with horror, that the race of men in almost extinct in Europe. Only Christ-like heroes and woman-worshipping Don Juans, and rabid equality-mongrels. The old, hardy, indomitable male is gone. His fierce singleness is quenched. The last sparks are dying out in Sardinia and Spain. Nothing left but the herd-proletariat and the herd-equality mongrelism, and the wistful poisonous self-sacrificial cultured soul. How detestable.
These words were written in 1921.
So these, then, are the three general types of travel writing. Each has its use. A good product will result if the writer follows these rules: (1) Do not take yourself with yourself, when traveling. That is, leave your prejudices and preconceptions at home. (2) Be sincere and honest in your observations. (3) Make accurate observatory details by keeping a journal or calendar while traveling. (4) Have something interesting to say, especially about your misfortunes, problems, and emergencies.
To find out more about the need for travel and adventure, read Thirty-Seven and Pantheon: