Books…for When You Can’t Travel4
August 27, 2013 by lucieromarin
If you can’t afford to travel, and it’s getting you down (or other people are getting down on your behalf, along the lines of, “Sure, you can afford rent and groceries, but not much else. You can’t even afford a holiday”) I think the first thing to do is to remind yourself that recreational travel has only relatively recently become something taken for granted as on the to-do list of every individual. (Granted, this reminder that you fall short of the common standard of Western affluence might be a little depressing, but it’s also important to remember that that standard is completely unrepresentative of the average human experience, not only throughout most of time, but also of the present day. For most people, ‘travel’ means fleeing war, economic hardship, or dictatorship.)
The next thing to do is to read great travel narratives! I don’t mean the self-indulgent and badly-written tales in which the featured city functions largely as a playground for the writer’s therapy/self-discovery, and the story is really about the author. I also don’t mean books about people who buy and renovate villas in European villages and then extol the new lifestyle achieved thereby. No, I mean those wonderful books which, through the author’s experience, take you to the place – and not just to its present, but to its past, as well. These books aren’t just about the food and the weather and troubles with the plumbing! They lift you out of that narrow sphere of daily life, deepen your thoughts and your imaginings…and don’t cost you thousands of dollars. Here are my three favourite:
From the Holy Mountain, William Dalrymple. How to do justice to this book, other than to say that everyone should read it? The blurb calls it a ‘rich stew’ and that is what it is. The author retraced the steps of a fourth century pilgrim through the Middle East, in order to compare notes. The particular focus is the fate of Eastern Christian communities in areas now dominated by Islam. The result is history, religion, politics, the sufferings of individuals and of nations, and some downright amazing stories that I guarantee will be worth it for any parts you don’t like. (The politics left me behind a little. For others it will be the history or religion.)
River Town, Peter Hessler. This is the story of two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the city of Fuling. I remember the prose as very clean, and I enjoyed his honesty about his struggles as a young teacher (there’s no ‘we-are-the-world’ false cheer), and I’ve been left with images of the people he met that are so vivid and indelible that they feel like memories.
Venice, Jan Morris. I look at the page and I think… I know all these words. I know all these words! How did I never think to use them this way? I’m enjoying the richness of the prose as much as I’m enjoying the character and landscape (and cats) that it conveys. Mind you, I’m only part way through the book – let’s see if I’m over the richness by the end of it. But, so far… I’m transported.
And here’s an honorary mention – a book about not travelling. ‘A Year of Slow Food,’ by David and Gerda Foster, is about deciding to move to the country and farm, so I suppose it is, in some ways, the kind of book I’ve just condemned. But the authors made a point that remained with me forever – that places become interesting because of the people who remain there, and the culture they build. If you see yourself ‘staying put’ for a long time, it doesn’t mean you’re out of the travel-loop – it could mean you’re on a different part of that loop – the part that makes people want to visit your city in the first place.
Just what I’m after. And I really liked this…”I know all these words. I know all these words! How did I never think to use them this way?”…Exactly! How many times have I thought exactly the same?
Thanks! Sometimes I feel momentarily discouraged by great writing, (as in, why do I bother trying?) but I’m mostly just grateful for the discovery of astonishing sentences and the chance to enjoy them, and I feel like a squirrel, taking the language and storing it away in the back of my mind.
Thank you for those. I didn’t know about the Hessler one. Can I add to that list three I read in the last while and absolutely loved: Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana, Ella Maliart’s Forbidden Journey and Peter Mayne’s A Year in Marrakesh? Useful for anyone who wishes it was still possible to travel the Silk Road – something that I fear even money can’t buy at the moment…
Thank you! I’ve been told that Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople’ is a must-read…but my list is already so long!