Tag Archives: travel classics

Classic Travel Lit 4: Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson, taken by Phil Leftwich

Bill Bryson, taken by Phil Leftwich

Destination: England

Book: Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson (audio book reviewed)

I’m playing catch up with some travel classics.  With the exception of Bruce Chatwin‘s Patagonia, I had not read the highly recommended classic travel literature that I have talked about this week.

Many travelers list Bill Bryson‘s Notes from a Small Island(1996) and In a Sunburned Country(2000) among their favorites for a travel library. When World Hum listed Bryon’s Australian book as one of the best travel books, writer and editor Tom Zwick groused in the comments that Bryson writes about himself rather than about the place to which he travels.

My library had the audiotape of Notes from a Small Island, so I decided to find out which faction I agreed with (travel-writer Zwick, or seemingly the rest of the travel-reading world). I was happy to start with England rather than Australia, because I’ve been to England (although briefly) and my only time in Australia involved changing planes.

In the book, Bill Bryson takes a farewell tour of Britain.  He had lived the expatriate life for many years before he and his British wife decided to move to America with their children. I found Notes from a Small Island to be charming and packed with the kind of detail that helps make the unfamiliar become at least understandable.  The addiction to inane TV shows, the mysterious enthusiasm for bland desserts, the belief that their island is far away from any other land mass, became endearing in Bryson’s telling. Rather than being bored with hearing about his own experiences, actions and reactions, I felt that he deepened my understanding of the people he met along the way.

For the most part he skips the obvious tourist haunts–no Anne Hathaway Cottage, for instance.  And although he does wander through Oxford, he does not recommend a visit. Instead he heads for places that have some personal meaning for him.  Yes, he’s weaving in his memoir and taking us along to places that he chooses for his own sometimes random reasons.  But doesn’t any travel narrative do that?

I sat with my spiral-cover large-scale Michelin road Atlas of the British Isles in front of me as the audio tape played, and followed his route from Dover to Wales and then through Scotland to the farthest north tip of Great Britain.  What fun it would be to literally follow his footsteps, perhaps skipping the things he found painfully ugly and pointless. On the other hand, it would be equally amusing to visit those places and see if he missed any redeeming features.

Bryson loves the English people, despite his making fun of their most un-American habits. He loves London, although he spends very little time talking about central London. (The City) I wish that he would do a guide just of London.

Notes from a Small Island brims over with statistics about population density and number of passenger trains, but he frequently apologizes for these factual diversions.  My husband lost patience with the longish introduction which is all about Bryson and his newspaper jobs before he actually got on the road.

But if you are truly looking for a book to inform you about England and inspire you to travel to lesser known parts of the small island, then read Notes from a Small Island.

(Photo by Phil Leftwich, from Flickr, Creative Commons license)

When you read a travel narrative, are you put off by the writer’s own, perhaps dull or painful, experiences? What do you think of Bill Bryson? Does he add to the traveler’s experience? Let us hear from you.

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Travel Classic Two: Bruce Chatwin

Cerro Tennerife Patagonia

Cerro Tennerife Patagonia

Destination: Chile and Argentina, South America

Book: In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

Bruce Chatwin uses one of the most engaging opening lines found in travel literature, or any other kind of literature, for that matter, to start In Patagonia (1977).

The classic of travel books begins , “In my grandmother’s dining room there was a glass-fronted cabinet and in the cabinet a piece of skin.”

When he asked about the strange object, he was told it was a brontosaurus that had lived in Patagonia in South America, “at the far end of the world.”  The hairy piece of skin becomes what Alfred Hitchcock called “the Magilla”–the object around which the drama builds. As he searches for the true story of the piece of skin, Chatwin develops a fascination for Patagonia which inevitably leads him to the far end of the world.

Chatwin tells stories in every paragraph, practically in every sentence.  He has the gift of looking at things in a skewed fashion and seeing them in completely new ways. “About fifty million years ago, when continents were wandering about…” he says. He leaves a museum, “reeling under the blows of Linnaean Latin.”

As he works his way south through Argentina and Chile, Chatwin meets with many people whose stories surprise and entertain the reader.  He also tells anecdotes about people who were once here, from Butch Cassidy and his gang to Darwin and his gang. Even Edgar Allen Poe plays a bit part in a story about the real life origins of his story Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. It is surprising the far-reaching impact of this remote place. But particularly, he is interested in the story of Charley Milward, a distant relative who found that piece of skin that was unfortuitously discarded, and of course must be rediscovered–or at least replaced.

Sometimes the journey, mostly on foot and hitch hiking on various decrepit vehicles, is very difficult. Sometimes it is very dangerous, as when a drunken sheepherder plays with his knife and wonders aloud what it would do the a gringo.  But regardless of whether you have the stamina to follow his route on the ground (and numerous travel agents stand ready to help you these days), In Patagonia provides a grand tour to take through reading a great piece of travel literature.

Photo by “Florasol” from Flickr, under Creative Commons License

Have you read it? Are you two for two this week? Or are you making a list? Share, please, we’re dying to know.

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Classic Travel Lit: Eric Newby

Afghanistan Mountains

Afghanistan Mountains--Not the ones climbed by Newby

Destination: Afghanistan

Book: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby

Newby’s work is on everybody’s list of travel literature not to be missed. I read a 1999 edition of the book, and the link here takes you to a Lonely Planet reprint.  The original 1973 edition is out of print. Newby also wins praise for the book, Love and War in the Apennines,  about his war time experience in Italy.

The self-effacing Newby tells his story in the framework of a humble ill-prepared would-be adventurer (himself) who joins a much more experienced friend in an exploration of northern Afghanistan.  During the trek described in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1973), they will be following the path of Alexander the Great, and they will see reminders of Tamerlaine’s journey through the same mountain passes.  This expedition takes place in the late 1950’s when very few outsiders had ventured into the area and relative peace prevailed, except for age-old grudges between tribes and cold war nervousness. Today, Al Quaida hides in this rough country which still cannot be reached by motor roads.

Newby and his friend Hugh, who turns out not to have the great expertise Newby thought he possessed, survive the fool-hardy adventure by sheer stiff-upper-lip fortitude.  One of the joys of the book is the subtle unmasking of Hugh, the alleged expert in expeditions, and the wry repartee between the two friends.

Being products of the British education system, they bring a knowledge of history and more than average language fluency to the task.  Living as they do at the tail end of England’s glory days as master of a far-flung Empire, they have a sense of built-in superiority over other races and cultures.  Their attitude toward the natives reeks of a kind of master-slave sensibility.

The British traditions of forebearance of hardship, however, keep them going as they sleep on bare, rocky ground, endure meals of packaged Irish stew and helpings of jam, and constantly suffer from dysentery that forces them to duck behind the nearest rock. They sustain the hardship,  knowing they are going where few have gone before and seeing amazing landsapes and interesting cultures.

Newby supplements the narrative with diversion of history–both of the native people and of explorers who trekked this way before.  He reproduces dialogue and captures word pictures of the passing scenes.

With Afghanistan once again at the top of American attention and our generally abysmal ignorance of geography, this book provides useful background. If, on the other hand, you are of the opinion that people who try to climb up sheer rock walls for fun have a screw loose, you probably should read something else.

Photograph by Alan Cordova, from Flickr, Creative Commons license

By the way, what book do you think these explorers took along to read (and re-read many times, it turned out)? The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. Which brings up an interesting question. If you were venturing into the unknown, what would you take along to read?

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Wrapping Up Blogathon and Starting New Projects

Memo to: Readers of A Travelers’ Library

From: A Traveling Reader

This morning was the wrap-up on Twitter by all the people who participated in the blogging marathon. Now I’m off on another sort of marathon–checking in to Likaholix most every day.  If you have not seen it, take a look.  It would be a great place for you to share your favorite travel books.

I’ve updated my TBR page to indicate travel books finished, travel books started, and a new book on the to-be-read pile that I’m very excited about. (Hint: Paris and food)

Recommendations are flowing in for books to read about Mexico, so maybe we’ll need to go back there soon.

C. M. Mayo writes to take exception to my laughing at “dolphins porpoising”. She says, “Dolphins do porpoise. Can be used as a verb.” Don’t want to belabor the point, because I love the way that Madame Mayo (as she is known at her blog) uses the language, and the ingenuity of her verbs and metaphors. And she has been most gracious about accepting what I wrote otherwise. And she is, after all, the one who teaches writing.

Next Up

This week we are going to visit some travel classics.  I will be showing what a babe in the woods I am by reviewing must-read travel books that I never read before. So here come Bill Bryson, V.S. Naipaul, Eric Newby, Paul Fussel, and Bruce Chatwin (the ONE out of these that I had already read.)

Next weekend I will disappear for a few days as the Traveler’s Library morphs into a new form.  Stay tuned.

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Filed under Books, Destinations, Mexico, Paris