TraveLit--A blog about travel literature

Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

"The Eye-Openers," by Hilaire Belloc

January 16, 2018

Tags: Words or phrases to categorize this post for the tags section

In "The Eye-Openers," an astute essay in his collection First and Last, Hilaire Belloc argues that too often travelers find "what they have read of at home instead of what they really see." He complains that "printer's ink ends by actually preventing one from seeing things that are there." We're so committed to the "wretched tags" we've acquired that we can't see past them.

I agree--it's hard to shed preconceptions, and also hard to really look at what's in front of us. Belloc doesn't go as far as William Henry Hudson (see my review, Afoot in England, Dec. 19, 2017) to suggest that we not read anything at all about a place or culture before experiencing it. He suggests that if a traveler "maintain his mind ready for what he really sees and hears, he will become a whole nest of Columbuses discovering a perfectly interminable series of new worlds."

See also my review of Belloc's The Path to Rome (Jan. 31, 2016), a book I enjoyed.






Review: The Lady and the Panda

January 8, 2018

The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China’s Most Exotic Animal
By Vicki Constantine Croke. Random House, 2009, 402 pp.

In the 1930s, the adventurers who sought to capture wild animals—either dead, for natural history museums, or alive, for zoos—were mainly young men from wealthy, upper-class families. Ruth Harkness did not fit into this group: she was a party-loving New York dress designer with no trekking experience, she wasn’t rich, and, most exceptionally, she was a woman. But she was determined to go to the Chinese-Tibetan border to complete her late husband’s unfulfilled mission: to bring a living giant panda back to the United States. And against very long odds, she succeeded.

Although once celebrated—and still respected by naturalists and zoologists—Harkness was a little-known figure when Vicki Constantine Croke first heard of her. In her preface, Croke, who has written about animals as a Boston Globe columnist and in her books, says that she felt an immediate bond with the explorer, whose respect for animals set her well ahead of her time. Awed by Harkness’s accomplishment, she decided to revive her story.

It’s an engrossing tale, set against the backdrop of a dramatic era. (more…)

Review: Afoot in England

December 19, 2017

Afoot in England
By William Henry Hudson. Originally published in 1909. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013. (The edition I read but do not recommend—see review.)

The practice of walking in the countryside, or rambling, has been popular in England since the 18th century, and William Henry Hudson (1841-1922) was an influential figure in the field of walking tours. For Hudson, these excursions were more than a hobby. They were part of his vocation—as a naturalist, an ornithologist, and a prolific writer whose many works include the novel Green Mansions.

As the essays in Afoot in England make clear, Hudson was a man of strong opinions—whether on cows or on women’s dress—and he makes his views on travel evident from the start. The pleasure in travel, he believes, lies in discovering “the charm of the unknown,” which is diminished if one reads a guidebook before encountering an experience on one’s own. Best to read it after the journey, he says, when reading won’t come between the viewer and the scene.

His short essays recount his own discoveries as he travels around the country: the mob at Stonehenge at dawn, (more…)

The Green Unknown: Travels in the Khasi Hills

November 24, 2017

The Green Unknown: Travels in the Khasi Hills
By Patrick Rogers. Westland, Kindle Edition, Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2017.

Patrick Rogers began trekking in the Khasi Hills in northeastern India in 2010, and he has returned many times since, drawn by the beauty of the region, with its canyons, its waterfalls, its raging rivers, and, above, all its living root bridges. These extraordinary bridges, trained from the roots of the ficus elastica, can reach a length of nearly 200 feet and rise almost 100 feet above the streams they span. They are, the author says, “among the world’s exceedingly few examples of architecture which is simultaneously functional and alive.”

Rogers takes readers along as he travels from village to village, mostly on foot, in Meghalaya, an area that is small but diverse: language, customs, religion vary from one place to the next. From time to time Rogers meets someone who knows some English, but mostly he communicates piecemeal, in words he’s picked up from Hindi and dialects or, more effectively, by signs. This seems to work. He gets along well with the people he meets, who generously offer hospitality to a bedraggled foreigner—a Phareng—whose purpose in being there they probably find unfathomable. (more…)

Travel Writing Upgraded

November 22, 2017

According to a review in the Times Literary Supplement, the new academic term for travel writing is "literary-mobility studies." Only in academia! I love it!

Review: Two Years Before the Mast

November 15, 2017

Two Years Before the Mast
By Richard Henry Dana
(This book is available in many editions. I read it online on The Project Gutenberg.)

Richard Henry Dana is buried in an old Cambridge churchyard just down the street from my house, and I’ve passed his gravestone hundreds of times. Yet I never paid much attention to it, and until a friend recommended Two Years Before the Mast, I had never read his classic work. Indeed, not only had I never read it, I thought it was a novel!

In fact, of course, this wonderful book is an account, in journal form, of Dana’s two years—1834-1836—as a sailor in the American merchant marine. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he had suffered from a case of measles that so damaged his eyes that he was forced to drop out of school. He then signed up on a Boston brig, the Pilgrim, heading round Cape Horn to California, where it would trade its goods for hides.

Young Dana is entirely ignorant of what he has signed up for, and as he says, “There is not so helpless and pitiable an object in the world as a landsman beginning a sailor’s life." (more…)

Abroad, by Thomas Crane and Ellen Houghton

November 2, 2017

Abroad
By Thomas Crane and Ellen Houghton. 1882. Reprinted in various editions.

Abroad is a beautifully illustrated children’s book in verse that tells the story of an English family’s trip to France. Their mother died three years earlier, and every spring their father tries to give them “some tour, or treat, or pleasant thing”—and their journey is this year’s gift.

Their trip takes them to Boulogne, Rouen, Caen, and Paris, where they visit the Tuileries and Luxembourg Gardens, the zoo, and the markets, see a Punch and Judy show and elegant, snobby swans, and enjoy a ride on a merry-go-round. Along the way they experience boat, trains, and hotels, and a great variety of French people at work--sharpening knives, making lace, or washing clothes. (more…)

Scott Expedition to the South Pole: New Information?

October 12, 2017

After all that has been written about the Scott expedition to the South Pole, can there really be new information? Maybe so. Those who, like me, continue to be fascinated by the question of what really happened, might want to look at this article from the Daily Mail.


Walking, by Henry David Thoreau

September 30, 2017

Longitude Books‏: Recommended Reading for Travelers recommends Walking, Henry David Thoreau's "meditations on the spiritual benefits of this most civilized form of travel."

Review: White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World

September 22, 2017

White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World.
By Geoff Dyer. Pantheon Books, 2016, 233 pp.

The stories in White Sands find Geoff Dyer on journeys in various parts of the world: on a book tour in China, researching Gaugin in Tahiti, reflecting on “The Lightning Field” in New Mexico, making a pilgrimage to Theodore Adorno’s house and contemplating the Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Each piece is preceded by a brief prologue relating to the author’s past that provides an associative context for the story that follows.

Dyer doesn’t just travel. He’s a writer who probes the experience of place and of travel itself, looking for meanings. Sometimes he finds them. His essay on the Watts Towers draws on jazz musicians and various writers to create an intriguing portrait of the man who built them, Sabato Rodia, and their import.

On the other hand, his story of seeking out Adorno’s house struck me as mainly pretentious. “I have this need to show off, to show that I know things,” he says, and this piece seemed to me to suffer from that need. (more…)

Selected Works

Travel Memoir
"Loved this book, which appears to be but is more than an account of an anthropological expedition, more than a travel book, more than a memoir."--Barbara Beckwith, author of What Was I Thinking?: Digging Deeper into Everyday Racism, barbarabeckwith.net.
***
"It is undoubtedly the best written account of, and reflection on, fieldwork I have read, and --perhaps -- the best book on fieldwork (period) I have come across. --Joel Savishinsky, Professor of Anthropology (Emeritus), Ithaca College, author of Trail of the Hare.
Nonfiction
“An impressively insightful, deftly written, accessibly articulate, expertly knowledgeable, and decidedly analytical survey of…book reviewing today.”
Midwest Book Review
Anthology
“Captivating stories in an anthology of epistolary fiction from the last 50 years.”
Kirkus

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