5 Classics of Travel Writing

readinginbedI’m much more a fan of reading non-fiction than fiction, and my favourite genre is travel writing. A well-crafted piece of travel writing, whether it takes the form of a journal, essay or more literary piece, transports you to a different place and time, revealing things previously unknown to the reader or capturing the beauty of the everyday that we often miss in our busy lives. Here are five of my favourites:

 

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

This is most certainly a travelogue, but not one in any ordinary sense. Rather, In Patagonia is a collection of snapshots and sketches from Chatwin’s wanderings, readings and imaginings of the region. Meetings with descendants of Welsh immigrants fill pages next to an account of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s retirement, which sit alongside thoughts on Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and the mythological giants imagined by Magellan. Dispensing with a narrative or plot, the reader is instead privileged to dip in a vast and curious pool of information. The stark Patagonian landscape serves as a cipher for the end of the road, for lands remote and imagined, and the array of characters Chatwin encounters (both historical and present), for those drawn to the ends of the earth for exploration, escape and enterprise.

Buy it here.

Monte FitzRoy in Patagonia. Photo from Wikipedia

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger

Thesiger is often described as an anachronism, his education at Eton and then Oxford, and his dogged determination to discover what lay within the blank spaces on a map, harking back to the gentlemen explorers of the Victorian Era, obsessed with colonisation and Empire. However, he distinguishes himself by immersing in the culture of the people he encounters, travelling for the sake of the experience, and his lyrical and articulate writing. Arabian Sands is his account of five years spent crossing and recrossing Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter of Arabia in the mid-1940s, accompanied by nomadic Bedu camel herders. Thesiger was also a talented photographer, and the images in the book capture a way of life on the brink of extreme change.

Buy it here.

Thesiger in Abu Dhabi in 1948. He donated over 5000 photographs of his travels in the Middle East to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford. Photo from Pitt-Rivers Museum.

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

Nobel laureate Steinbeck’s novels capture the voices of early 20th Century America, reflecting on his broad range of interests, from history to politics to ecology. In 1960, Steinbeck set out on a road trip in a fitted-out pick-up truck with Charley, his standard French poodle, to document the changes that had occurred across the States throughout that period, and connect with the identity of a new America. Much has been made of the truth of the account, with Steinbeck’s wife, Elaine, having been present for most of the journey yet largely absent from the book. Studies have since revealed that a number of events and encounters were fictionalised, but I feel Steinbeck deals with the issue, meditating on how personal experience shapes a person’s reality. The writing is as good as you would expect from such a renowned author, and there’s Charley, the travelling companion we all dream of.

Buy it here.

John Steinbeck and Charley on the road in 1950. Photo from The Guardian.

News from Tartary by Peter Fleming

In 1935, Fleming, then an editor for the Times, set off on an overland trip from Peking (now Beijing) in China to Kashmir, then in British India, by horse, camel and on foot. Tartary, an area corresponding to a vast swathe of Central Asia, had long been subject to influences from China, Russia and the British Empire in a period referred to as “The Great Game”, yet at the same time was a black hole in terms of most Westerner’s knowledge. With the Soviet Union supporting a communist uprising in Xinjiang, no news had been gathered from the region for several months before Fleming’s journey. The writing is crisp, with a wry humour, although readers should be aware some passages are very evocative of their era.

Buy it here.

Photograph of a Madrasa in Samarkand taken c. 1912. Photo from Wikipedia

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Saint-Exupéry is best known as the author of The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince), a set text for many students of French, but he was also a pioneer of aviation, flying the airmail routes between Europe, North Africa and South America in the 1920s and 30s. In 1935, whilst attempting to beat the record for a flight from Paris to Saigon, he and his navigator crashed into the Sahara. Surviving the crash and lost in a sea of sand, they face a drawn-out death from dehydration. This experience is recounted in Wind, Sand and Stars, part memoir of early aviation and part meditation on the human condition. This is powerful, lyrical storytelling, rich with observations on love, beauty, adventure, life and death. In my opinion, this slim volume is as near perfect as a piece of travel writing can be.

Buy it here.

Saint-Ex and his aircraft. Photo from The Guardian.

 

Which classic travel books have inspired you?

 

Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you follow them to buy a book I recommend, I get a small payment from the company, at no charge to you whatsoever. It helps keep my book habit going.

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6 thoughts on “5 Classics of Travel Writing

  1. burkean February 26, 2015 / 19:55

    Great call on the Steinbeck- one of my favourites of his, but lesser-read for some reason.

    • vickyinglis February 27, 2015 / 07:38

      I wasn’t aware of it until recently. My only experience of reading his work was Of Mice and Men as a school assignment.

  2. doublewhirler February 27, 2015 / 02:42

    My two favourites on your list are Thesiger and Fleming. Not on your list is my own favourite is Patrick Leigh-Fermor – really vivid writing.

    • vickyinglis February 27, 2015 / 07:36

      I’m always drawn by his books in shops, but I’m sorry to say that I’ve not read anything if his yet. Which would you recommend to start with?

    • vickyinglis March 10, 2015 / 13:20

      I love Sun, Wind and Stars especially, as the writing is so beautiful.

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