Narrowly avoiding the Black Death in Syria, we have in the Muslim writer Ibn Battuta, author of “Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354,” one of the ancient world’s finest chroniclers. While it’s unlikely that most of us, hobbled by suspended air travel and closed borders, will soon be venturing as far as the writer from Morocco, who journeyed to China, the Malabar Coast, Mali and Andalusia, I like to think that our future itineraries are deferred, rather than canceled, pleasures.
It seems as if I’ve spent my whole life traveling, in either corporeal form, or in the mind. Can books, one of the best ways to travel vicariously, change our lives or at least reset their courses? I believe they can. As a schoolboy, that happened when I picked up a copy of poet Laurie Lee’s “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning” (1969), an account of the youthful author’s journey on foot from his Cotswolds village to Spain, in the months before outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. The year after reading this title, I hitchhiked during the summer vacation, from London to what was then called Yugoslavia.
Many of our best journeys begin on the page. And there really is no limit to the number of recommendable books in the travel genre. A good place to start is with the work of Dervla Murphy, an Irish woman whose first book, “Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle” (1965), retells her journey by bicycle from Dunkirk to Delhi.
Murphy, now in her 80s and still active, is one of a number of women travel writers, from Victorian authors like Flora Tristan and Isabelle Eberhardt to contemporary authors, such as Annie Dillard and Robyn Davidson, who have enthralled readers with their dispatches from remote parts of the world. In the essays collected in “Travels Within and Without” (2016), a slim volume that belies its real dimensions, Tokyo-based Ann Tashi Slater, situates us in the Himalayas, where remoteness is synonymous with altitude. In essays focusing on the centrality of family and liminal states of being, she combines the thin air of Tibet with a transcendent writing style.
Anyone with a serious interest in this genre cannot afford to ignore the work of novelist Norman Lewis. As the author of travel classics such as “A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam” (1951) and “Golden Earth: Travels in Burma” (1952), Lewis’ career has spanned several decades. Admired by the likes of journalist Auberon Waugh and novelist Graham Greene, he helped to create a form that is authentically literary.
When novelists, with their finely tuned narrative and descriptive skills, turn to the genre, the results, no doubt creatively embellished in places, are invariably well-crafted. I think of Salman Rushdie’s “The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey” (1987), a travel book that is all politics, and Pico Iyer, whose first work, the much-acclaimed “Video Night in Kathmandu and Other Reports From the Not-So-Far East” (1988), is just as much about multiculturalism as travel.
I knew Paul Theroux’s work as a novelist before “The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia” (1975) propelled him to international attention as a highly original voice in travel literature. Accounts by travel writers are invariably linear; authors encounter subjects, before moving inexorably forward. But in a more recent book, “Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads” (2015), Theroux dismantles the structure, undertaking instead a circular journey, where people and places are revisited, and our insights are deepened.
Although one occasionally hears threnodies to the decline of travel writing, recent examples of the genre prove otherwise. The magisterial writing of Colin Thubron, author of titles that include “Shadow of the Silk Road” (2006) and “To a Mountain in Tibet” (2011), attests to the ability of great writers to create accounts that are both engrossing and compassionate.
For the sake of keeping up with new work, I make a point of reading the “The Best American Travel Writing” series each year. The entries are uneven, some written in a deliberately off-kilter, post-gonzo, road-fever style of journalism, but, like the best anthologies, there is something for everyone.
Travel writing doesn’t have to be overly earnest, as the work of humorist Bill Bryson, author of such bestsellers as “Notes From a Big Country: Journey into the American Dream” (2016) and “A Walk in the Woods: The World’s Funniest Travel Writer Takes a Hike” (2010), testify. In poet Simon Armitage’s hilarious but reflective “Walking Home: Travels With a Troubadour on the Pennine Way” (2012), we find the writer singing for his supper, giving verse readings in pubs, village halls and living rooms.
What titles are currently on my shelves during this protracted period of restricted travel? I can’t wait to open zoologist Tim Flannery’s “Among the Islands: Adventures in the Pacific” (2011), an account of his explorations in search of rare species, and then there is the long overdue read of William Scott Wilson’s “Walking the Kiso Road: A Modern-Day Exploration of Old Japan” (2015). “Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River Between Russia and China” (2015), by Dominic Ziegler, will take me down the Amur River along the borders between Russia and China. They say it’s already a classic.