Reading the World

By Stuart Mitchner

In his introduction to the 1946 Scribner’s edition of Henry James’s The American Scene, W.H. Auden observes that while travel is the “easiest subject for the journalist” who requires only “a flair for being on the spot where interesting events happen,” it is the most difficult for the artist, “who is deprived of the freedom to invent, free only to select and never to modify or add, which calls for imagination of a very high order.”

Except that, as Auden goes on to show, James found ways to invent, modify, or add, exploiting his “descriptive conceits” with rhapsodies on “the golden apples of the Jersey shore” and the pleasure of “being ever so wisely driven, driven further and further, into the large lucidity of—well, of what else shall I call it but a New Jersey condition?”


The most widely read recent example of travel narrative is Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, the subject of the Summer 2013 Book Scene. Still on the best-seller list two years later thanks in part to the Reese Witherspoon film, Wild bears out Auden’s notion of “a flair for being on the spot where interesting events happen.” If nothing else, Strayed put backpacking into the mainstream of travel writing, thus Belden C. Lane’s Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice (Oxford $24.95), which includes a quote from Wild among a slew of epigraphs. “I long to hear the saints speak with a stark clarity, six miles in from the trailhead,” Lane says in the prologue. “Their task is to call me up short. They leave me speechless before a mystery that’s beyond my understanding, but not beyond my love.” In a chapter titled “The Risk-Taking Character of Wilderness Reading,” Lane talks about reading dangerous books in dangerous landscapes, where the “place heightens the vulnerability occasioned by the text.” As examples of how the place where a book is encountered affects the way it’s read, Lane cites Claus Westermann reading the Psalms in a Russian prison camp and Eldridge Cleaver reading Thomas Merton in Folsom Prison.


Of course you don’t have to go to dangerous places or leave your comfortable study to take the world on or in, which is the idea behind The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe (Liveright $24.95) by Ann Morgan, who writes in the opening, “I glanced up at my bookshelves, the proud record of more than twenty years of reading, and found a host of English and North American greats staring down at me…I had barely touched a work by a foreign language author in years… The awful truth dawned. I was a literary xenophobe.”

This revelation prompted her to set up a blog in 2012, “A Year of Reading the World,” the goal being to read a book translated into English from each of the world’s 195 UN-recognized countries in the form of classics, folktales, current favorites and commercial triumphs, novels, short stories, and memoirs.


Area readers will take note as soon as they begin reading Don George’s introduction to his newest anthology An Innocent Abroad: Life-Changing Trips from 35 Great Writers (Lonely Planet $15.95), with its admission, “I went to live in Paris right after graduating from Princeton, following in the footsteps of F. Scott Fitzgerald, or so I fancied.” A member of the Class of 1975, George is the Global Travel Editor for Lonely Planet Publications and has edited numerous other Lonely Planet anthologies. In his quarter century of wandering, he claims to have visited more than 60 countries and has published more than 600 articles in newspapers and magazines worldwide. He also writes’s weekly travel column, “Wanderlust,” and was the founder and editor of its awardwinning travel site.

Sounding the theme of innocence and experience, George introduces a cast of authors that includes Dave Eggers (“in the backroom of a Bangkok brothel-cum-nightclub”), Sloane Crosley (“on a cliff overlooking a shark-infested Australian bay”), Pico Iyer (“a succession of ill-fated initiations in South America”), Tim Cahill (“a series of rootless adventures in North America”), and Richard Ford (“an illadvised journey by car into the heart of hashish country”), and Simon Winchester (“ice-bound by fjord-freezing storms in Greenland”).

To acknowledge his title’s debt to Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, George adds a quote from the original: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness....Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”


Travels in Vermeer: a Memoir by Michael White (Persea $17.95) relates how the author, a poet, finds escape from a bad divorce through viewing the paintings of Vermeer, in six world cities, Amsterdam, The Hague, Delft, London, Washington, and New York. White meditates on Vermeer’s women, the artist’s relationship to his subjects, and the way composition “reflects back to the viewer such deep feeling.” Clyde Edgerton, the author of Walking Through Egypt, finds Travels in Vermeer to be “a unique dance among genres” whose “clear and powerful descriptions touch on the mysteries of seduction, loss, and the artistic impulse.” Kirkus Reviews calls it “An enchanting book about the transformative power of art.”


Of today’s “literary writers,” Paul Theroux has enjoyed extraordinary success in the travel narrative genre, beginning with his blockbuster best-seller The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (1975). In the wake of that first triumph, the 74-year-old Theroux has produced something like a dozen similarly railway-themed books, including a 2008 sequel, where he retraces the journey (Ghost Train to the Eastern Star) and, his most recent installment in this series of a lifetime, The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari (Houghton Mifflin $27). The Booklist review of that one assumes that “ultimate” means “final” and imagines the author “in an autumnal state of mind” as he “ponders his own mortality.”

As a lover of train journeys, I admired the concept and enjoyed The Great Railway Bazaar, but only at arm’s length, the arm being Theroux’s. Certain terms surfacing from the reviews of his latest journey suggest that he’s still the same “grouchy,” “curmudgeonly” traveling companion he’s always been. Mark Twain’s celebration of travel as “fatal to narrow-mindedness” and productive of “broad, charitable views of men” doesn’t apply to Theroux, whose congenital unpleasantness has apparently never deterred vicarious travelers from the displeasure of his company.

Finally, Theroux bears out Auden’s distinction between the journalist and the artist. As a fastidious traveler, he offers little beyond “a flair for being on the spot where interesting events happen,” while in a work of fiction like The Mosquito Coast he’s able to draw from an “imagination of a very high order.”


My response to The Great Railway Bazaar is admittedly complicated by the fact that in the spring of 1976, while people were still buying, reading and talking about that book, Little Brown released my own travel memoir, Indian Action: An American Journey to the Great Fair of the East. It would be hard to imagine two more diametrically opposed adventures in the genre. Theroux traveled first-class all the way. His “traveling persona,” as described in the front page send-off in the Times Book Review, was “acerbic, bookish, deadpan, observant, bibulous and rather passive (except for a fi erce determination to secure comfortable accommodation and something to drink).” Mine was upbeat, rhapsodic, hyperactive, and headlong. If you read Indian Action, you bang around in the back of trucks, eating dust, getting high on exotic concoctions called Mad Dog Pie, and travelling thirdclass on Indian Railways. The reviews were exciting (“a virtuoso celebration in dancing language,” “a rollicking, often frightening trip to a psychedelic heart of darkness,” “a drug generation On the Road,” full of “zest, wonder, and downright hairiness”), but the only one that counted, in the Times Book Review, came half a year too late and compared my “dancing language” to positions in the Kama Sutra. True enough.


New titles recommended by Labyrinth Books in Princeton include The Lost World of the Old Ones: Discoveries in the Ancient Southwest (Norton $27.95) by veteran mountain climber David Roberts; The Brandywine An Intimate Portrait (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press $34.95) by Princeton faculty member W. Barksdake Maynard; Jewish New York: A History and Guide to Neighborhoods, Synagogues, and Eateries (Pelican paperback $24.95) by Paul Kaplan; and The WeeGee Guide to New York: Roaming the City with Its Greatest Tabloid Photographer (Prestel $39.95), which includes contemporary and period fold-out maps.