On Travel Literature (and where to start)

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)

Advertisements

Obvious and Hidden Symbols

symbolsCarl Jung longed for his work to be understood by the general public, not only by specialists in his field.  There have been others, like Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, who have also made great efforts to translate their often esoteric research and observations to laymen, children, and the generally curious. Most naturalists or armchair aficionados rely on books and papers written in this way, for this audience, and we non-scientists owe much to them.  In Carl G. Jung´s Man and His Symbols we discover meanings of symbols in our waking life (the medieval, natural, religious, in advertising, literature, political propaganda, sculpture and art, or in myths) and in our subconscious life (dreams, compulsions, desires, emotions).  Much of this “profusely illustrated” book (how could a work on symbols not be so?) is simply Jung´s interpretation of his clients´ dreams, but the work in general may well be boiled down to his effort to describe the acquisition of psychological maturity, a highly individual endeavor, and how it may be obtained in a modern society that moves toward conformity at every turn.  His clients come to him with dreams, he interprets them as subconscious expression through symbols, the only way the subconscious can express anything. These symbols are recurring and they learned throughout our lives through literature, for universesnakeexample. To me, dream interpretation gets boring quickly, mostly because the books and articles I´ve read on the subject either neglect subjectivity entirely (similar to the silliness of zodiac symbols) or are too self-deprecating by explaining that dreams are only products of individuals, thereby just fun to speculate about.  But there are symbols that carry meaning that we all understand, and there are individuals who´s dreams are particular to him or her, but decipherable through symbolic means (Jung includes a James Thurber cartoon in which a “henpecked” man sees his home and his wife as the same thing).

hurber620x370

                    Cartoon by James Thurber.

Often in modern life we behave in ways that conflict with our individual nature, and I think there is something to be said for the subconscious compensation for this imbalance. Jung has written much about this, and I include his expertise in the other works on the subject that I have read and will read.  If I, for some political motivation, choose to fly a    Don´t Tread on Me flag, with its squirming serpent amongst disjointed words and letters, I want to know what it means, both to my own mind and to humanity in general.  This is not only a peculiar interest, but a social responsibility.