Introduction Travel writing, as I once observed elsewhere, is the most accommodating - one might almost say the most promiscuous - of genres. Write a book or essay that might otherwise be catalogued under memoir, humor, anthropology, or natural history, and as long as you leave the property at some point, you can call it travel writing.
With luck or persistence, you might even find a publisher willing to underwrite the cost of the trip. I remember the moment it occurred to me that this was an unusually agreeable way to make a living. It was in the early 1980s, when I was living in London. In those days I had a desk job for the London Times, but to supplement my income I began in my spare time to write small articles for newspapers and magazines. Usually these were features on some aspect of British life or culture, but once, more or less out of the blue, I was asked by an editor of the in-flight magazine of Trans World Airlines if I would go to Copenhagen, where the airline was about to inaugurate flights, and write of its attractions.
Well, Copenhagen is a splendid city, and I had the most marvelous time. It was while dawdling over a coffee on Strrget, the city’s principal pedestrian thoroughfare, that the giddy if somewhat tardy realization dawned on me that I was spending five days in a European capital at someone else’s expense, having an awfully good time, and that all that was required of me in return was to write down a thousand words or so of observation on what I saw and did. And for this I was to be paid real money - pretty good money, as I recall. It was then it occurred to me that this was a pretty well unbeatable way to make a living.
So I began to write travel books. The problem was that in the 1980s there wasn’t any real market for them in the United States. Travel books at that time meant guidebooks and almost nothing more. Occasionally someone would write a travel narrative that would attract critical attention and sell well - Paul Theroux with The Great Railway Bazaar, William Least Heat-Moon with Blue Highways - but for some reason they weren’t allowed into the travel section. Once a travel narrative was published and had finished its time on the “New Releases” shelves (which in my case seemed to be something in the region of three or four hours), there wasn’t any place to put it. On those occasions when I dropped into bookstores to visit my old titles and helpfully move them to positions where they might catch the eye of someone less than eight feet tall or not lying supine in the aisle, I would generally find them in the oddest places, shelved under current affairs or social commentary or geography - anywhere, in short, but near the travel section, where Fodor, Frommer, and Let’s Go reigned supreme.
How happy I am to report that all that has changed, though it took an amazingly long time when you consider how big the travel literature market has been in other countries for years. The first time I can recall seeing travel books (by which I mean real books with chapters and a story to tell) gathered together in their own section anywhere in the United States was only in about 1990, in San Francisco. But little by little the practice has spread until now it is customary, if not quite universal, for bookstores to offer an assortment of literary travel titles among the more conventional guides. It is telling, I think, that while anthologies comprising the year’s best essays, short stories, sports writing, and plays, among goodness knows what else, have been around for years, and sometimes decades, it is only now, thanks to the dear and enlightened folks at Houghton Mifflin, that travel writing is being accorded equal standing. It feels like a genre whose time has come.
The question that naturally arises is why all this has taken so long. The United States is, after all, a nation predicated on the idea of movement - the movement that brought people to the country in the first place and then kept them spreading out from east to west. There is still a restlessness in the American character - a willingness to up sticks and move elsewhere without much in the way of a backward glance - that would strike many people in more settled countries as at the very least unusual, perhaps even just a trifle shiftless. In any case, if anyone ought to be predisposed by nature and history to an interest in the excitement and possibility presented by the unfamiliar and far-flung, then surely it would be us. Yet with a few exceptions - Mark Twain and S. J. Perelman from time to time, the tireless Paul Theroux more regularly - few American writers of a literary bent have been tempted into the field. Insofar as the exotic featurees in American letters, it is nearly always as a backdrop for fiction. What a pity we haven’t got Dorothy Parker traveling through Weimar Germaaaaany, say, or William Faulkner in Africa, or Robert Benchley bemusedly scrutinizing the Orient, or John Updike anywhere at all.
It’s a curious omission when you consider just how durable and popular the field has been elsewhere. In Britain, travel writing has long been a mainstay of publishing. Since at least Smollett’s Travels Through France and Italy, published in 1766, scarcely a writer of note in British literature has not at some time turned his hand to travel writing. Johnson and Boswell, Sterne, Dickens, Darwin (with The Voyage of the Beagle - a travel book par excellence), Anthony and Frances Trollope, Robert Louis Stevenson, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Winston Churchill, and others well beyond enumerating all produced travel books, often very good ones. Moreover, many of Britain’s most gifted writers - Redmond O’Hanlon, Jonathan Raban, Norman Lewis, Jan Morris, Eric Newby, Bruce Chatwin, and Colin Thubron - have built successful careers largely, sometimes all but exclusively, on the idea of traveling to a place and writing about it.
It seems entirely possible that something like that may be happening in the United States now. As the pages that follow amply demonstrate, many of the sharpest minds and freshest voices in journalism are drawn to foreign subjects these days - increasingly (and encouragingly) to places far beyond the trampled paths of tourism. A generation ago, I daresay a book of this sort would have been dominated by European and American destinations - Capri and Pamplona and the Florida Keys. Today instead we get places of a far more diverse and challenging nature: Zanzibar, Cambodia, the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, the forbidding Cape York Peninsula in Australia. That the geographical spread of this collection is so largely exotic pleases me no end, but I should note that it is less a reflection of my own predispositions than those of the publications from which these selections were culled.
All this, it goes without saying, is heartening to see. One of the first things that struck me when I first ventured abroad in the early 1970s was how much more attention, compared with America, the rest of the world paid to the rest of the world; and one of the first things that struck me when I returned to the States to live twenty years later was how much less attention we paid now than we had before. Though there are some commendable exceptions - notably that great underappreciated asset National Public Radio and some of our larger daily newspapers, as well as many of the magazines whose contributors are represented in this volume - most of our popular media seem to be much less drawn to foreign matters than formerly. I urge you sometime to go to a library and look at Time or Newsweek magazines from the 1950s or early 1960s. You will find that they are dense with reports from abroad -