On a recent podcast with The Casual Academic, Jacob Welcker and I discussed travel literature and what it means to us. We again realized just how many books we have not read and how much there still is left to be discussed, which I think is a good sign of our level of curiosity, at least.
In celebration of World Book Day, and as a complement to the podcast I have compiled a small list of the travel books that I have found to be instructive, those which typify the genre. We discussed many of these books, and Jacob brought other works to the conversation. (As of today, the podcast episode hasn´t been released yet, but stay tuned to The Casual Academic (link above) for news). Of course the genre is a loose one, and many of the categories that I have made overlap and intersect.
So, here is a list of seven kinds of travel literature that I have noticed, with examples of what I have in my own library that serve as great works for the uninitiated. Again, especially with lists like these, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of other fine examples of what could be interpreted as travel literature; this list merely stands as a small collection of those that stand out for me. Feel free to let me know in the comments of any great ones that you might like.
1) Travelogues that have contributed to the knowledge of humanity:
Charles Darwin – Voyage of the Beagle
Steinbeck – Sea of Cortez
Alexander von Humboldt – Personal Narrative and Cosmos
John Lloyd Stephens and illustrator Frederick Catherwood – Incidents of Travel series (particularly those in the Mayan Riviera)
Pigafetta – his accounts of Magellan’s historic voyage
Roald Amundsen – My Life as an Explorer, The South Pole, and Northwest Passage
Ernest Shackleton’s diary entrees and his book South!
Even Robert Falcon Scott’s diary (pulled from his pocket on his frozen body)
Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s –Worst Journey in the World
2) Writers who were already famous for other things, and ventured into writing well about their travels
George Orwell – Down and Out in Paris and London, Homage to Catalonia
Jack Kerouac – On the Road (although I do share a bit of Truman Capote´s opinion on Kerouac´s writing: it´s not writing, it´s typing).
Joseph Conrad – Lord Jim (arguably others, but many drawn from his experience on ships).
Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad, Following the Equator
D.H. Lawrence – Sea and Sardinia
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – Italian Journey
John Steinbeck – A Russian Journal
3) Writers who set out to critique a culture or area of the world, through essay
Rebecca West – Black Lamb Grey Falcon
Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines (on my to-read list), In Patagonia
Robert Byron – The Road to Oxiana
3) Writers who stay in a place for an extended period of time and write about it
Peter Mayle – A Year in Provence
Gerald Brenan – South from Granada
Edward Abbey – Desert Solitaire
Beryl Merkham – West with the Night
Antoine de Saint-Exupery – Southern Mail, Wind, Sand Sea and Stars, and Flight to Arras
Paul Theroux – A Dark Star Safari (a trip, but drawing on a large wealth of experience in Africa)
4) Writers who made a lifetime of study analysis of a culture
Archer Milton Huntington – A Notebook in Northern Spain
5) Writers who write about their own cultures
Steinbeck – Travels with Charley
Camilo Jose Cela – Journey through the Alcarria
6) Some exceptional travel articles
Christopher Hitchens – Visit to a Small Planet (Vanity Fair)
James M. Markham – Goethe’s Italian Journey (New York Times)