The Armchair Traveler’s Bookshelf
Though there’s no substitute for the travel experience, reading about other people going to foreign places offers its own rewards. Travel writing can be a kind of preparation for future trips, a way to seek advice and wisdom from those who have gone before. It can also be a vicarious form of escape, a means of checking out all the wild or dangerous or beautiful corners of a place without ever having to leave the predictable upholstery, meals and shampoos of home.
Former Monty Python member Michael Palin has been tempting his audience out of their armchairs for years — giving rise to a phenomenon known as the Palin Effect, in which the places the much-loved travel writer/television host visits suddenly become popular destinations. His shows Himalaya and New Europe, charting journeys through the vast Eastern mountain range and Eastern Europe, respectively, are the most recent in a series of seven such shows and all have been turned into books with audio versions. Palin’s sly charm, intellectual curiosity and generous approach make him an amiable narrator — whether he’s sampling the medicinal power of leeches in Estonia or milking a yak in Tibet, Palin tirelessly delivers informed, entertaining guides.
New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean is another seasoned journeywoman, but her travels — to places as varied as Midland, Texas, home of President G.W. Bush, Bhutan and Cuba — have a more directed quality, with her reading of a place revealed as an integral layer of a larger narrative. For Orlean, places are treated as characters in the story, and their particulars are relayed with bemused wonder, like so many personal quirks.
In another category of travel narrative, Eat, Pray, Love and The Geography of Bliss are both books of personal seeking. Elizabeth Gilbert embarked on her three-leg journey to Italy, India and Indonesia, seeking physical gratification and spiritual fulfillment on the heels of a divorce and her account of that yearlong search is a highly idiosyncratic reflection on her interior and exterior landscapes. The Geography of Bliss, meanwhile, finds its semi-miserable journalist author Eric Weiner skipping around the world, looking for the lost secrets of contentment in places such as Qatar, Iceland, Switzerland and Thailand, his quest offering unexpected entertainment and enlightenment.
Whatever function they serve, the best travel books succeed because of an author’s personality, which should beckon readers always onward. These books do exactly that, with style, pathos and comedy to spare.