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The Best American Travel Writing 2009

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Monday, Dec 28, 2009
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The Best American Travel Writing: 2009

Simon Winchester, Editor

(Mariner; US: Oct 2009)

If Jason Wilson’s foreword and Simon Winchester’s introduction to this fine collection of essays don’t hook you, well, you’re probably more inclined toward reality TV than reality travel literature, anyway.


Wilson takes the premise that the narratives found in travel writing are comparable to the simplistic narratives found in video games, a premise sparked from an unexpected conversation with a friend. At first, he’s perplexed by her assertion that players’ experiences of various locales in gaming are really just backdrop for their own, personal stories. This is how many travelers experience the world outside of their own: as mere backdrop to the stories of their own lives.


Later, he finds himself playing Endless Ocean on Wii with his two sons, and enjoying the pseudo ‘experience’ of ‘adventure’ the game aims to invoke. Comparably, we already know that Japan, for example, creates pseudo ‘other countries’ within its own, so that Japanese ‘travelers’ can experience a recreated Holland, for example, without leaving their homeland. Whole communities, complete with hefty home prices revolve around this concept of living in another country without leaving Japan.


So, too, the experience of reading travel literature is, for many, substitute for actual travel. Do such pseudo-experiences—gaming, reading, never leaving the resort—render the meaning of travel ... meaningless?  To varying degrees, I’d say yes. But give me an informed essay on Sundarvans (“Tigerland” by Caroline Alexander) long before I set foot in the jungle, and I’m inclined to see much more than just a canvass of green, which is all the uninformed mind will see—I will, at least, sense the presence of the man eating tiger.
  
We are rescued from armchair travel-invoked semi-guilty, self-indulgence by Winchester’s introduction, which paradoxically compares Americans’ relative lack of interest in travel (only one in four own a passport), and their embarrassing lack of geographical knowledge (an area of education he laments is sorely lacking in America’s core curriculums) to its healthy production of excellent travel literature, primarily found in magazine format. Granted, Winchester is considering only travel writing published in English, but it is flattering to readers who admire this format, and who probably don’t get out much themselves, to hear that a reputable critic from a land of former imperialists and colonialists (and all the seeing of the world that affords) and always a land of adventurers (possibly more so than any other peoples) affirms what we’ve all suspected; for those Americans (of a nation not without its imperialist proclivities) and English-language readers who are willing to make but the slightest effort, quality, travel literature, produced in relative abundance in America, is but an arm’s reach away. ‘Tis the land of plenty, indeed.


“... at its very best, travel writing should be a technique to explore history, art, and politics in the liveliest fashion possible,” writes Robert D. Kaplan (Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History). Those who seek such travel writing, who pick up anthologies such as The Best American Travel Writing 2009, and occasionally get off their duffs and meander through the Atlas before returning to their reading chair, are thus redeemed. Those who get to go out into the world, with a strong sense of history and geography percolating in their brains, are blessed.


Which brings me to the one major weakness of this anthology: The inclusion of Chuck Klosterman’s very brief, absolutely perplexing ‘essay’, “Who is America?” With this entry Klosterman thrusts readers back into the gaming world mentality, where all the exotic settings are but a backdrop for one’s own navel-gazing blather, in this case garnered from a seemingly lazy survey. This otherwise fine anthology is weakened by this inclusion; Klosterman reads like the bore on the bus that everyone hopes is getting off at the next stop and will, for the rest of his stay, never set foot outside of that resort. Meanwhile, the rest of us move on. Eric Weiner’s “My Servant” is comparably short to Klosterman’s inclusions, but it at least touches upon an awareness of first-world privilege / post-colonial guilt: meaning; it makes the effort to make a point.


Such are the detours and setbacks of any travel; annoyances that are but minor bumps in the road of an otherwise excellent collection of thoughtful, thought-provoking literature. Enjoy these essay plucked from Harper’s Magazine, The American Scholar, and Slate.com, to name but a few, from the comfort of your favorite reading chair, and let the hours blissfully slip by.


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