The New York Times Books section posted a list of six travel books for holiday gift giving ideas. All six are by guys, and most of them are in the gonzo realm of bad boys going really far away places doing pretty extreme things. There’s a nod to traveling women in the opening paragraph, but not a single book.
Travel writing sometimes seems to be all about rough and tumble tough guys going to out of the way places (the more inaccessible the better) and having extremely grimy adventures. While I have nothing against a good adventure, or even against bad boys eating snake innards and bugs, it really isn’t about travel as much as the Young Man Testing Himself in Extreme Ways. Which is fine, too. It’s just not really travel for the masses. There is one on the list about a quest: MISHIMA’S SWORD: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend (Da Capo, paper, $15.95), which looks a bit different, but it’s still about a man’s view of the world.
The other craze in travel writing is the "I moved to Tuscany/Provence for a year and this is what I learned," and there is one of those books on this list, too. The best one was Frances Mayes’s Under The Tuscan Sun, and all the rest are doomed to fall short, I’m afraid.
There are some travel books by women, but often, they’re doing the literary equivalent of women wearing power suits in the 80’s–women doing male things in the travel world to prove that they can. Adventure rafting on the amazon or running 100 miles in the Grand Canyon. (Why?)
And maybe I’m just a bourgeois thing, wanting to read a different sort of adventure, but maybe I’m just more interested in the internal journey. A trip doesn’t have to take me far away or into an exotic realm to be fascinating–it is the journey itself that fascinates. It is the observation of the traveler, her connection to what she sees and how that shifts her internal landscape. What do you learn when you stand on a beach in Florida where the signs are all missing, and there are no traffic lights because there have been three hurricanes this season? What do you see when you walk on a busy street in an ordinary Midwestern city on a Saturday in September?
My suggestions for travel books that will thrill the women on your list (and a good many of the men), are three: EAT PRAY LOVE, by Elizabeth Gilbert is so madly, intensely, wildly successful because it is a travel book about the internal spiritual journey of a single woman who recounts her journey with honesty and insight. UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN, Mayes’s book, is slightly different, but also evocative and quietly observed. Another of my favorites is Rosemary Mahoney’s A SINGULAR PILGRIM. (And I know I’ve talked about all of those books before, but I’m offering a counter to bad boys eating bugs. )
What travel memoirs or essays or books would you recommend?
(PS Someday, I’d would sincerely love to write a book that was so beloved that it gathered 731 reviews on Amazon. That is truly a book touched by grace.)