Nine Subversive Travel Books
Travel Books: Thomas Kohnstamm celebrates books that have really
rocked the boat
Take a spin through the travel section at your average Barnes & Noble
and you'll be confronted with memoirs about learning to cook Italian
comfort food under the tutelage of a wisecracking Tuscan grandmother,
a meditation or 12 on rediscovering romance in the shadow of the
Eiffel Tower and stories about how weird China iswritten by
monolingual, white Americans.
The mainstream travel genre does indeed favor saccharine escapism.
And there is nothing wrong with upbeat armchair travel. But
non-fiction travel writing can also be so much more. Travel writing
has long been a source of subversive thought and an incisive
commentary about mankind and the world around us. Here are nine
titles that have really rocked the boat.
'The Motorcycle Diaries' by Ernesto 'Che' Guevara
Since exceedingly successful capitalists like Britney and Jay-Z
donned Che T-shirts (not to mention millionaire Mike Tyson's Che
tattoo), it's become trite to use Guevara as an example of anything
seriously subversive. However, Guevara's youthful Motorcycle Diaries
is rebellious in ways that are not immediately obvious. This
travelogue shows Ernesto the Medical Student developing a sense of
Pan-Latin Americanism that fuses the interests of indigenous Andean
peasants with traditional adversaries like upper-middle-class
Argentine intellectuals (i.e. Guevara). The book ventures a unified
regional opposition to U.S. hegemony and global capitalism's
sometimes ravaging effects on Latin America.
'The Art of Travel' by Alain de Botton
Like many of de Botton's books, The Art of Travel dissects a popular
theme (travel) and gives you iconoclastic philosophy 101. This series
of essays argues, perhaps correctly, that most people don't enjoy
travel as much as they do anticipating it or reflecting upon it. He
also explores our motivations for travel and how travel does or does
not actually fulfill our expectations. This book is not outwardly
subversive, but it inspires readers to consider who they are, how
they relate to place andonce all romantic notions and delusions are
stripped awaythe actual purpose and effect of travel.
'A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains' by Isabella Bird
The British explorer Isabella Bird was an invalid whose doctor
recommended fresh air. She took that literally, and spent most of the
next 40 years on a solo world tour. A Lady's Life in the Rocky
Mountains, from 1879, is a volume of letters detailing Bird's
perilous and sometimes hilarious horseback exploration of the Wild
West, as well as her chaste (or so she says) romance with a one-eyed
outlaw, "Mountain Jim." Maria Dahvana Headley says "Bird completely
won my heart when she ascends Colorado's Longs Peak in freezing
temperatures, wearing a pair of men's overshoes, and a 'Hawaiian
riding dress' made of thin wool, and then actually apologizes for her
lack of skill as a mountaineer."
'The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class' by Dean MacCannell
If de Botton's "The Art of Travel" is the intro course to contrarian
travel philosophy, then UC Davis professor Dean MacCannell's The
Tourist is the master class. It is true that his evaluation of the
semiotics of tourism will never appeal to the average reader in quite
the same way as "Under the Tuscan Sun," but MacCannell uses tourism
as a prism through which to explore an ethnography of modernity and
modern valuesand he manages to make the text accessible and
entertaining regardless of the density of the subject matter. He
explores such concepts as the commodification of culture, consumption
of tourism markers, staged authenticity and the alienation of labor
which forces us abroad in search of deeper meaning.
'Across Asia on the Cheap' by Tony Wheeler and Maureen Wheeler
Asia's overland Hippie Trail was already a well-worn counterculture
experience by the time recent business school grad Tony Wheeler and
his wife Maureen published Across Asia on the Cheap in 1973. However,
the guidebook broke ground by mainstreaming the globalized backpacker
counterculture at the polarized height of the Cold War. Moreover, it
brought a DIY aesthetic and strong opinions to the travel guidebook
genre. The lasting effect was that the book (and its subsequent
series) constituted an easy entrée to alternative, independent travel
that could be devoured by the masses.
'The Voyage of the Beagle' by Charles Darwin
It's hard to top the cultural impact and backlash created by Darwin's
"On the Origin of Species" and its fundamental challenge to religious
belief systems. True, "On the Origin of Species" is a science book,
but it would not have been possible without Darwin's earlier
five-year voyage around the Southern Hemisphere on the HMS Beagle,
which led to his travel memoir, The Voyage of the Beagle. The book
pondered mysteries of the species that Darwin encountered in distant
lands and raised many questions that he only fulfilled in "On the
Origin of Species." Later editions of "The Voyage of the Beagle" were
re-worded to incorporate evolutionary insight into his original travels.
'The Worst Journey in the World' by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
A survivor of Robert Falcon Scott's tragic 1910-1913 Antarctic
exploration, Cherry-Garrard went on to write one of the great
adventure travel books. But a quick glance at the title should give
the reader a sense that this is not your typical celebration of
derring-do. Cherry-Garrard takes the romanticism out of the grand
notion of British exploration but simultaneously unleashes a scathing
critique of life back home. Travel writer and editor Hunter Slaton
notes how the book values lonesome, wretched Antarctic
adventurefrostbitten fingers and allover a predictable, comfortable
life back in England when Cherry-Garrard writes: "For we are a nation
of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does
not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will
sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be
shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal."
'The Travels of Marco Polo' by Marco Polo and Rustichello da Pisa
OK, so maybe Marco Polo didn't actually become the right-hand-man of
Kublai Khan. Maybe he never met Kublai Khan at all. And, yes, the
most famous Venetian of all time didn't write the bookthat was left
to a ghostwriter and cellmate, Rustichello da Pisa, who probably
interjected additional fictional elements (after all, da Pisa was a
romance writer who had already knocked out a King Arthur book). Fact
checking was piss poor in the 13th Century, so we'll never really
know the truth. All of that aside, few books inspired so many
Europeans to seek fortune and adventure outside of Europe and,
thereby, alter the world. One person known to have been heavily
influenced by The Travels of Marco Polo was a Genoese guy named Columbus.
'Nobody Said Not to GoThe Life, Loves, and Adventures of Emily Hahn'
by Ken Cuthbertson
Unaccompanied female travelers were still a rarity in America by the
1920sand so Emily Hahn dressed as a boy on a cross-country car trip.
By 1948, Hahn had moved to the Belgian Congo, crossed Central Africa
on foot, entered into a turbulent affair with a Chinese poet in
Shanghai, and had two children with Britain's chief spy in Hong Kong.
Top that in 2010, Bear Grylls. This biography is an engaging
introduction to a complicated and strikingly progressive woman.
Follow it up with some of Hahn's own work: 52 books and more than 180
New Yorker articles.
Nine Subversive Travel Novels
Travel Books: Thomas Kohnstamm celebrates fiction that uncovers
deeper truths about travel and the world
Travel writing is often assumed to be only non-fiction travelogue,
but I see travel literature as anything in which place plays a
central roleand that can include fiction, or anything in between
fiction and non-fiction.
The roman à clef, subjective (gonzo) memoir and fictional travel
novel allow the writer to explore socially and politically sensitive,
if not subversive, themes from more angles than the straightforward
Take, for example, Bruce Chatwin's controversial classic, "In
Patagonia." The book lies somewhere between fiction and nonfiction,
and that allowed Chatwin to create a grittier, more texturedand
considerably more intimateportrait of the land and its people.
Novelist and memoirist Anthony Doerr said, "I flat-out loved 'In
Patagonia' when I first read it and was never bothered to learn that
some of it is made-up. Everything is artificial and subjective to a
certain degree anyway, isn't it?"
Here are nine travel books that use fiction to uncover deeper and,
often, uncomfortable truths.
'Heart of Darkness' by Joseph Conrad
Based on Joseph Conrad's 1889 journey up the Congo River, Heart of
Darkness may not be the most racially sensitive book by contemporary
standards. However, the book was innovative at the time of its
publication because it called into question the supposedly civilizing
forces of European interests in Africa. In effect, it damned the
Europeans' self-proclaimed moral high ground. From the book's
powerful introduction on the deck of a ship on the Thames to travails
in the Congo, the story is vivid and transporting, but still manages
to be a socio-political critique of home. Not bad, considering that
English was Conrad's third language.
'Journey to the End of the Night' by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
This novel's anti-hero (and Céline's alter-ego) Ferdinand Bardamu has
a concocted last name that translates roughly as "backpack-move."
Mainly autobiographical, it follows Céline's travels through Europe,
colonial Africa, post-World War I America, and his hometown of Paris,
with a caustic, nihilistic depiction of people and culture. The
author later went off the deep end as a vocal anti-Semite, but this
sharply eloquent book tears back the façade of industrial America,
romantic Paris, European colonialism and, perhaps, the notion that
human beings are ever truly redeemable.
'Away' by Amy Bloom
Amy Bloom's recent novel, Away, tracks its immigrant heroine, Lillian
Leyb, across a 1920s America replete with prostitutes, prisoners,
exploitation and racism. Lillian's travels are motivated not by any
urge to see the world, but by love, and a desire to find the daughter
she lost in a Russian pogrom. Lillian stows away in the bathrooms of
passenger trains, walks across most of Alaska, trades sex for
security and immerses herself in Seattle's African-American
underclass. "Away" does not shy away from harsh historical realities
and complex interpersonal and internal tensions.
'Factotum' by Charles Bukowski
Set near the end of World War II, Factotum is a picaresque of
deadbeat alcoholic and Bukowski alter-ego Henry Chinaski. Good ol'
Hank makes his way from booze-soaked nights in skid row Los Angeles
around the country and back while slaving away at menial,
mind-numbing jobs. All the while, Chinaski labors to become a
published writer and befriends and fornicates with equally lost souls
and tragic characters. "Factotum" depicts an underbelly of the
listless World War II home-front America that flies in the face of
the triumphal image painted in your average U.S. history class.
'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' by Hunter S. Thompson
Thompson's most celebrated work and genre-defining masterpiece is at
once a psychedelic road trip buddy comedy and a hedonistic 1970s
reevaluation of the American Dream. It's based on road trips made
between Los Angeles and Las Vegas by Thompson and Chicano
activist-lawyer Oscar Zeta Acosta. It's a domestic travelogue that
uses San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and a wide array of
uniquely American characters in a twisted critique of the
achievements (or lack of achievements) of 1960s counterculture.
'On the Road' by Jack Kerouac
One of America's most popular novels and go-to reading for any young
traveler, On the Road developed out of Kerouac's North American
travels in the late 1940s. Once seen as rebellious, Kerouac's
adventureslike, say, going to Mexico to smoke weed with a real, live
Mexicanare something that many Americans now experience prior to
finishing high school. Kerouac's 1940s fringe behaviors are no longer
so taboo. However, when "On the Road" was published at the apex of
American conformity in 1951, it was scandalous and revolutionary. One
thing hasn't changed, however: the book's ability to motivate readers
to chuck their quotidian routine and hit the road.
'Kaputt' by Curzio Malaparte
Italian fascist-cum-exile-cum-writer-and-eventual-Communist Malaparte
explores the horrific endgame on the Eastern front of World War II in
the Ukraine. Malaparte served the Italian government as a diplomat
and worked as a correspondent during the war and was able to evaluate
the devastation through the eyes of the people who knew they were
going to lose. He drifts through lands immersed in conflict and
creates a larger picture of madness and cruelty. This is a cynical
and terrifying travelogue through hell, which offers as much
discomfort as it offers insight. Perhaps this is to be expected from
someone whose nom-de-plume means "of the bad place."
'Down and Out in Paris and London' by George Orwell
One of the first great down-on-your-luck travel books, Down and Out
in Paris and London is a depiction of Eton-educated young Orwell's
supposed slumming as a dishwasher in Paris and panhandling as a hobo
in London. Rather than going on to hone his writing at Oxford or
Cambridge, Orwell reported on the underworld of two great, yet
class-conscious, cities through his fictionalized interactions with
broken laborers and desperate immigrants. Orwell is none too kind to
the harsh practices of the restaurant industry and shows signs of
sympathy for the exploitation of workers, which he exhibited again in "1984."
'Lost Horizon' by James Hilton
Rumored to be influenced by National Geographic articles about the
Tibetan travels of an Austrian-American explorer, James Hilton's
novel is the source of the fictional Tibetan lamasery (and now cliché
Western utopian concept) of Shangri-La. Published in 1933, the novel
uses visions of utopia to hint at the gathering storm of what was to
become World War II. Trace Crutchfield, who pushed boundaries himself
as a correspondent for "The Vice Guide to Travel" and "Current TV,"
celebrates Lost Horizon "not only for establishing the concept of
Shangri-La in a time of serious political upheaval, but for also
being the first paperback in print."