In the past months, I’ve been casting about for good models of travel writing, in hopes of learning more about how to structure my own book, how to lard it with interesting tidbits without weighing it down, how to tell a story without getting bogged down in details…
Of course once I told myself that I was reading for a purpose, my own crafty mind managed to justify all kinds of seemingly random books. And, in true self-absorbed-grad-student style, suddenly every book seemed like a travel book of some kind, through some magic elastic thinking.
But really, yeah. A journey is a journey is a journey. Here are some of the books I’ve read recently that took me on one.
The City & The City, by China Mieville
I can’t say much more about this, except that it’s kind of a detective novel set in one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Read it.
Gun Guys: A Road Trip, by Dan Baum
Dan Baum wrote the wonderful Nine Lives, about New Orleans pre- (and a little post-)Katrina, and this book covers equally “exotic” territory for the typical American-coast-dweller. Baum strikes out for middle America and all those gun lovers you keep reading about. Sneaky thing is, Baum is a gun lover himself, even though he grew up in and around NYC.
The book is more officially about American gun culture, but the travel element is right there in the subtitle, as Baum careens around the country interviewing ballistics-crazed oddballs. Sneaky thing is, Baum is a gun lover himself–even though he’s a skinny Jewish guy from New York, as he points out repeatedly.
Baum–oh, I’ll call him Dan, because I know him–has the gift of gab, and part of the appeal of this book is being able to picture him rolling into assorted gun shops and shooting ranges, trying to talk his way into red-blooded gun culture.
He makes a good travel writer because he walks the line between insider and outsider, explaining without lecturing, and letting the people he meets tell their own stories. And he takes advantage of his role as a traveler, a visitor, to class-surf, from redneck-y shooting ranges up to posh rifle competitions. Which is great, because we could use a lot more analysis of class here in America.
Timbuctoo, by Tahir Shah
First, this is a wonderful physical object, a huge book with an embossed cover and fold-out maps and ribbon bookmarks. And its premise is bizarre and wonderful: the imagined drama behind a real event, when an American man showed up in London claiming to have visited the legendary visit of Timbuktu…back when Europeans still thought the place was built entirely of gold.
Shah writes two travel narratives in one: we all get to voyage back to the pompous hilarity of Regency-era England (where people get all their teeth yanked out because it was the fashion, apparently?), while Robert Adams (the American) tells his story of being hauled hither and yon through the Sahara as a slave.
Oh, third possible travel thread: Shah has hidden a golden treasure somewhere in the world, and the clues to its location (and a substantial prize) are in the book. Get cracking!
International Bank of Bob, by Bob Harris
A wise investment[/caption]This is a ridiculously heartwarming book. Bob Harris had an epiphany about world inequity while on travel-writing assignment in Dubai, and proceeded to dump all his spare cash into microloans at Kiva. And then he went around the world visiting microloan recipients, to see how/if it all worked.
You got yer exotic locales. You got yer innovative ideas. You got yer wisecracking-but-super-nice-guy author. It’s a pretty solid combination. Although even I, who firmly believes the world is full of kind people, got slightly overloaded on all the sweetness and positivity. Which Harris warns of in the introduction, and makes no apology for.
I’ve faced the same problem writing about my travels. Nothing bad has happened! I’ve done stupid things and talked to everyone, and it all turned out totally fine. Travel writing ideally should instruct and nudge without seeming to, I think. But Harris actively decided not to be subtle, and just wrote a book to convince Americans the world is a great place. And I’m glad he did.