Travel writing is my favorite genre. In your bookstore, it’s usually near the travel guides. Barnes titles the section ‘Travel Essays,’ which I guess is about right. I’m not much influenced by the Standard Favorites; for example, I don’t happen to have an opinion on Bruce Chatwin. I think I read one of his books, or at least part of it.
I look for the right combination of insight, humor, and wry misadventure. I am easily turned off by a pretentious title. I don’t mind if the author is a scoundrel, as long as I don’t adjudge him or her a coward. I want to learn more about other places while following an adventure, and I want to believe what I’m reading.
Why aren’t there more women on this list? Because this list focused on authors with significant catalogues. It’s not that there aren’t a lot of great woman-authored travel books; it’s that so many are one-offs, maybe two-offs. I’d love to see a woman be the next Tim Cahill, but there isn’t even a male next Tim Cahill.
Tim Cahill (USA). Hasn’t done much recently, I think due to a stove-up back and advancing age, but he’s my favorite. His story about fleeing from the Yogurt Riders in Mongolia still has me cackling. His travel is adrenaline junkie material, and he has the laconic restraint to let the situation’s humor speak for itself. When one’s deep-caving takes one through a muddy tunnel titled The Rectum, one doesn’t really need to comment. If I am going to go back and re-read someone’s travel book, it’ll probably be one of Tim’s. Good example: Road Fever, about his endurance drive with Garry Sowerby from Ushuaia to Deadhorse.
Tony Horwitz (USA). Underrated, and strong at investigating history as part of his travels. His account of partying with Australians in northern Queensland is another good example of letting the comedy speak for itself. And I’d say it takes some sand for an American with a Jewish surname to go prowling around the Arab world. Horwitz is that travel writer who can float back and forth between perceptive historical analysis and amusing travel tale with seeming minimal effort. Good example: Confederates in the Attic, about his time with hardcore re-enactors.
William Least Heat-Moon (USA). Rather well known, and I have a sort of odd history with him which I once detailed in a blog post. Another master of letting the comedy haul the freight without a push, and one of the sharpest observers ever to hit the road. One learns a lot while reading Heat-Moon, and his presentation style reflects a mind with a few extra creative wires that are missing from mine. Can’t go wrong with Heat-Moon. Good example: Blue Highways, America from non-freeways.
Tim Severin (Ireland). A stud. Tim Severin has set out to duplicate a number of historic voyages using craft as near to the historic vessels as possible, and to connect old legends to our modern understanding. Dry style, but the best part is realizing what he is doing, how difficult it is, and how much it has taught us about the methods of ancient and medieval mariners. One of his funniest books is about land travel, where he rode an Ardennes heavy horse from western Europe most of the way to Jerusalem. The adventures of the horse, a monster with hooves like bowling ball halves, are ongoing and uproarious in Crusader.
Tony Perrottet (Australia): like Horowitz, mixing historical understanding with great travel, and does so nearly as well. My only complaint is that he credits Mississippi with being last in tourism per capita among the states. I’m under the impression my home state, Kansas, is that honor’s jealous guardian. Come on up, mate, and you’ll see why “I took the family for an exciting Kansas vacation” said no one, ever. Seriously, though, off the Deep End is a good book, and he has yet to write a bad one.
Bill Bryson (USA). One of the best known, but one senses that Bryson is the biggest fan of Bryson’s wit. One gets the impression that he’d be smart not to return to many of the places he visited, given the way he sneered at them in print. But he really lost me when he wrote a book about hiking the Appalachian Trail, but did it in a bunch of effete bite-size pieces rather than take it in a single, awesome pass. That was almost as annoying as his book about travel in Britain, Notes from a Small Island, in which he complained rather too much for my tastes.
J. Maarten Troost (Netherlands/USA). His first few books about travels around the Pacific Rim were everything I like in travel writing. Funny, revealing, fresh in style. The most recent, however, contains a lot about his battle against alcoholism. Now, I don’t begrudge the man writing about his actual life as it is, and I applaud him for kicking the sauce. I just am not that interested in his struggle with his demons, beyond wishing him the same success I’d wish most people. I liked it better when he did The Sex Lives of Cannibals.
Redmond O’Hanlon (UK). Very well known, and is an unjust victim of my CSTT (can’t stand the title) tendencies. If one is interested in naturalism, give him an extra star, because that’s his academic background. I recently re-read his book about traveling in Borneo, just out of fairness, and I have to admit that the writing and storytelling are rather good in Into the Heart of Borneo.
Frances Mayes (USA). I suppose it isn’t really fair to characterize Under the Tuscan Sun and its spinoffs as travel books; they are more making-a-new-home-abroad books, though I consider those close enough as makes little difference. I just didn’t feel it with Mayes, as nice a lady as I’m sure she is. Too much about the food choices of the day, too froufrou-feeling for my preferences, and too much about Bella Toscana already.
Not doing any more of this:
Stephen Clarke (UK): it’s not that A Year in the Merde and its sequels are a bad reads. It’s that they look and feel like real travel books, yet are fiction. I am not interested in travel fiction, especially that which sort of goes around in travel essay drag and one only later notices the truth. I admit that I could have looked closer, and that the author cannot control where Barnes shelves his books, but I believe that they get shelved there somewhat by the author or publisher’s design, and I don’t like that at all.
In keeping with the feedback I received, I’ll let you look these authors up yourself if you desire. Future plans include lists of lesser known gems, women travel writers, writers about U.S. travel, and suchlike.