Travel books are the perfect side dish to accompany travel. They can be consumed before, during or after the affair and will offer a sumptuous experience.
Here are three selections from the menu, and the odd reasons why.
From Paul Theroux’s simple commentary on rain, to Alain de Botton’s mix of philosophy and photos, to Bill Bryson’s postal service dougnut, these three authors’ works on travel offer much for the prospective, current or returned traveller.
The Tao of Travel, by Paul Theroux (2011)
Paul Theroux’s The Tao of Travel could at first be charged with a hint of laziness. People other than Theroux wrote most of its pages. Mark Twain appears in moments (“travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness”), so too Ernest Hemingway, as well the great traveller Freya Stark. Yet amongst the thoughts of others, are the insights — both quotes from his other works and original comments — of Theroux, a seasoned traveller and master writer.
He offers a full harvest of insights, too many for this article. Two, though, can be included: Rain is no enemy and travel is largely about the people. Theroux reminds us that though travel agency ads suggest a pristine beach drenched in sun is the only version of a good trip, this is not the case.
“Only a fool blames [their] bad vacation on the rain,” he writes. The dour moments, the frustrating moments, the angry moments. These are each part of the experience and may in fact become, if not the most cherished, then possibly the most educative memories of your time abroad.
The Tao of Travel time and again refers to a key feature of the pursuit: the people of the land you’re in. Excerpts from American-born writer Henry James speak of his intrigue for Venetians: “It takes a great deal to make a successful American, but to make a happy Venetian takes only a handful of quick sensibility.”
Finally, Theroux notes simply that one of the Tao’s of travel is to “make a friend”. It is the last nugget of advice on a brief list of 10. The people are, ultimately, the country. The architecture is pleasant, the historic ruins interesting, but the people are the blood.
The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton (2002)
Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel is another illuminating read for the traveller. De Botton’s literary approach is simple yet engaging: Blend the insights of philosophy with the woes of everyday life, and from this construe an improved method of living. In The Art of Travel de Botton touches on theme after theme: the difficulty of escaping your ego even in an exotic land; the question of whether travel is even needed; and the potential incuriosity we feel in a new land.
For this article, though, there is only room for one idea: Stand still and stare. In one chapter, De Botton looks at the work of John Ruskin, a 19th century art critic, who advocated a more thorough visual appreciation of the world.
The point is simple: Slow the pace of travel and, upon reaching a point of beauty or interest, do not reach viciously for your camera, snap, then rush to a new clime; instead stand and stare. Perhaps grab a sketchbook and draw a terrible picture. Its quality does not matter. What does is that by taking the time to apprehend the scene — the elegance of the ancient Greek columns, or the play of the clouds amongst the mountains, or the way the steam curls upwards from the dumpling vendor’s stand — you better absorb its beauty. Perhaps don’t sketch. Perhaps only try, with words, to describe what you see. Don’t even bother to write them. Just think them. The important point is this: No rushing, no absent-minded happy snaps.
Notes from a Big Country/I’m a Stranger Here Myself, by Bill Bryson (1999)
In a connected manner, Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Big Country (or I’m a Stranger Here Myself in America) again trumpets the value of observation. It does so almost accidentally. Bryson is a skilled observer, and a funny one at that. He picks up on, and potentially exaggerates, the quirks of new lands.
Key to his observations is that they are rarely profound. He writes a very readable few pages on junk mail. The brisk chill of the morning takes up other paragraphs. In a chapter elsewhere he waxes lyrically about the difference between British and US postal services — one is cold and efficient; the other is perhaps less competent, but the service is concluded with a doughnut (you can guess which.)
The point, though he never makes it, is clear: As much, maybe more, is to be gained in travel by spending time observing the small, seemingly inane elements of the new land. Certainly go to the big sites, the picture postcard destinations. Perhaps also swing by the post office to see whether you’ll leave with any exotic cuisine.