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How Do You Like Your Travelogues?

How Do You Like Your Travelogues? post image

I didn’t like Bill Bryson’s travelogue The Lost Continent because I thought his sense of humor was too dark, mean, and inconsistent for my tastes. In the comments, Laurie Hertzel, author and books editor for the Star Tribune, commented (emphasis mine):

Bill Bryson’s books are very strange. His schtick seems to be this outraged sensibility that time should not change anything, that places should remain quaint and preserved in a way that would be most unnatural. He travels alone, usually, and he seldom engages anyone that he meets along the way; most of his travel writing is vivid and interesting (and, as you say, mean), but he remains an outsider; usually he goes back to the pub and has dinner and a few beers and goes to bed, and you never get the sense that he has involved himself in a place.

I decided to give Bryson’s travel writing a second try by listening to an audio book of In a Sunburned Country, a travelogue about Australia. As I listened, that comment stuck in my head.

While I liked In a Sunburned Country better than The Lost Continent, I’m not sure that I’ll ever love Bryson as a travel writer because he travels a lot like me, and I travel pretty boring.

For In a Sunburned Country, Bryson traveled to a country that he loves unabashedly (a point he repeats with relative frequency). In between tales about taking a train across the Outback and driving along the coasts, Bryson fills in the book with details and anecdotes about the history and quirky tales of Australia.

And those sections are quite funny. I loved reading about all the ways Australia animals can kill you and the way Australia politics are totally incomprehensible and how they love cricket even when it’s the longest game ever. And listening to Bryson read the book with his amusing accent was nice.

But at the end of the day, Laurie’s comment was exactly right. After every day of travel, Bryson heads to a hotel, finds the nearest pub, and settles in. He never really makes an effort to engage, preferring to poke fun or highlight contradictions in the people he meets. He seems to always want the world to be “quaint” or “charming” or any other pleasing adjective you’d commonly find used in 1958.

I don’t begrudge him his pint and seat at the bar. In fact, I totally get it because it’s almost exactly like me.

I’m not a middle-aged, sarcastic, sharply funny British guy, but when I travel I’m equally tame. I take the well-traveled road, hit up tourist attractions, then spend the night by the pool or out with friends. And most of the time I like it that way.

Here’s an example: I went to London a few summers ago for a class on Shakespeare. One night a friend and I were out at a pay phone trying to call home. I was waiting outside while she made a call when an older Czech man approached me and started chatting. He asked where I was from, what I was doing, and whether I wanted to go get a drink with him. He was very insistent — “Just one drink! It’s no big deal, I’ll pay!” Rather than finding this exciting, I was freaked out. I did my best to be nice, but basically shot him down in favor of an evening reading in our hotel lobby.

So I’m a tame traveler. That means if I’m going to read a travelogue, I want the book to be a way for me to experience a place in a way that I’ll never get to experience myself. I can do what Bryson does, and that makes it seem boring.

I think this is the reason I liked Carl Hoffman’s The Lunatic Express so much. In that book, Hoffman goes to some of the world’s most out-of-the-way places by some of the world’s most dangerous ways to travel. He goes places I’ve never been, and gets to them in ways I’m too scared to try. It’s travel I won’t experience myself.

I feel the same way about Susan Jane Gilman’s memoir Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, In that book, twenty-something Susan and her friend Claire decide to travel the world alone, starting in China (which was only just opening up to the West). The two girls are a bit like me – young and excited – but do something infinitely more adventurous that I imagine I could be.

I just started another travel memoir, Rachel Shukert’s Everything is Going to Be Great: An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour, and while I’m not liking all of it the fact that Shukert does things I would never do while in Europe appeals to me.

I’m prepared to give up on Bryson just yet. His sense of humor hits home with me, and I really want to like what he writes. I’m thinking some of his other nonfiction – Made in America or A Short History of Nearly Everything or his upcoming book At Home – might be a better fit.

But for now, I have to sadly conclude that his travel writing just doesn’t seem to work for me.

How do you like your travelogues?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Amy July 20, 2010, 6:10 am

    I have to admit that when I travel (though it is usually alone) I am more on the tame side, but I do try to be more adventurous! I prefer the travelogues where people go and interact. The sights are great but it is the culture that I want. I want to know how people live, what their local dishes are, what are the people like, etc etc. I want the secrets of what is great to do that the travel guides won’t tell you!

    • Kim July 25, 2010, 8:24 pm

      Amy: I’d love to be more adventurous too, but so far it hasn’t happened it. And I’m the same way — I like to know what it’s like to live in any of these places, not just what I could see if I got the chance to go there myself.

  • Laurie July 20, 2010, 6:15 am

    i am pretty sure the czech guy would have freaked me out, too.

    try eric newby. he’s not a wild and crazy guy, but he does get more involved in the places he visits, and his humor is gentle (and very British) and always aimed at himself. he also does tons of research, and i got frustrated reading “round ireland in low gear” (he and his wife bicycled around ireland in the winter, in pouring rain) because he visited places that i have been to many times and yet wrote casually of battles and sieges and history that i knew nothing about.

    • Kim July 25, 2010, 8:25 pm

      Laurie: I checked out an Eric Newby book from the library, but I haven’t gotten to read it yet. I’m glad his humor is directed at himself — that makes it more fun to read, I think.

  • Elise July 20, 2010, 6:59 am

    That was a really interesting post. I haven’t ever read a travelogue, nor anything by Bill Bryson but am keen to read one of each!! Thank you for the insight!

    • Kim July 25, 2010, 8:26 pm

      Elise: I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Lots of people have recommended A Walk in the Woods as a good Bryson travel book. I still think i want to read that one.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) July 20, 2010, 7:39 am

    I like people who travel differently than I do too – for me, that’s the beauty of books, to explore something different.

    • Kim July 25, 2010, 8:27 pm

      Kathy: Yes, I think so too. Even though I’ve never been to Australia, but if I did I think I’d do a lot of the same kinds of things Bryson did.

  • Steph July 20, 2010, 8:06 am

    Loved this post! I haven’t read a ton of travelogues, and I had also never thought about the question you posed. I think the biggest thing I look for in travel writing is an open mind and positive attitude. When you’re traveling, things don’t always go smoothly, but I hate hearing people complain about how another culture isn’t exactly like their own… I mean, why travel then? One of my favorite things to do is to travel, so I consider it a huge privilege to get to do so, and I really hate anything where people forget that getting to see the world is awesome and isn’t something everyone gets to do. I love humor and understand being frustrated, but I don’t want to read travel writing where the author is bitter and mean about the places he is visiting.

    • Kim July 25, 2010, 8:28 pm

      Steph: That’s a good point. A positive attitude and open mind are a huge part of a good travel experience — in person or in reading.

  • Thomas at My Porch July 20, 2010, 8:31 am

    I haven’t read either of these Bryson books but I have read 3 or 4 of his other books and really liked them. I guess I was always just amused by them and never really thought about the issues you bring up. He is actually an American who has lived much of his adult life in England. And oddly his loner character is in contrast to his job as Chancellor at the University of Durham and hi life with his wife and four kids. Or maybe the four kids are what make him want to be a loner.

    • Kim July 25, 2010, 8:30 pm

      Thomas: Those are interesting details about Bryson. I knew he was from Iowa and moved to England, but didn’t know about him being a chancellor. That’s interesting. I thought his books were amusing — I definitely laughed and enjoyed parts of them, but as a whole felt like they were lacking a little bit.

  • Andi July 20, 2010, 5:07 pm

    I’ve got to try Bryson to see what I think of him! I do think I’ll find it disappointing that he doesn’t really “experience” a place. That’s what I’ve loved so much about some of my favorite travel writing. A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain and The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost come to mind.

    Looking forward to Undress Me In the Temple of Heaven and others you’ve mentioned here.

    • Kim July 25, 2010, 8:33 pm

      Andi: I haven’t heard of either the books you mentioned, but if they have experience in them then I suspect I’ll like them. I lot of readers I admire really like Bryson, so I hope you get a chance to try him and see for yourself.

  • Jenny July 20, 2010, 6:54 pm

    I think you did quite right not to go with the Czech guy. But I am also a pretty tame traveler. I love chatting with people I meet, so I do not necessarily refuse to engage, but I am not the girl who wanders off the beaten path to have an adventure.

    That comment about Bill Bryson is totally on the nose! Now I want to read some more of his travel writing so I can observe that comment being right more and more often!

    • Kim July 25, 2010, 8:36 pm

      Jenny: I’m pretty confident not going with the Czech guy was the right choice, too, although I suspect there could have been some adventurous stories from it. I like to chat with people when they chat with me, but don’t go out of my way to do so.

      It was so funny listening to the book with Laurie’s comment in mind, because every night he did exactly as she said.

  • Christy (A Good Stopping Point) July 20, 2010, 8:13 pm

    Bryson’s Walk in the Woods is quite enjoyable, but all your comments jive with what I thought of The Lost Continent. Maybe Walk in the Woods is better because it’s on the Appalachian Trail *and* he has a companion most of the way, an unprepared but entertaining friend of his.

    I loved Gilman’s book and I gravitate toward travel writing overall. Like you, I love it when the authors engage with the people around them. Some of my favorite travel writing has involved people taking on a traveling companion who they did not know before. In a travel essay called “Hotels Rwanda”, the author Jay Kirk is on a tour with a random collection of other people and I loved his observations of them as much as I loved his observations about Rwanda.

    • Kim July 25, 2010, 8:39 pm

      Christy: I’ve only heard good things about Walk in the Woods, which isn’t true of The Lost Continent. I like when there are other people in travel books too — it’s nice to have someone to contrast the author with and see different interactions. I’ll be looking for Hotel Rwanda, it sounds good.

  • Esme July 20, 2010, 10:23 pm

    Try The Lost Girls-I enjoyed their book quite abit. I actually really like Bryson because of his sardonic humor-Have you read A walk in the woods-I must say that I could not stop laughing as I read it. I despised the author of Undress me in the Temple of Heaven-her selfish narcissistic behavior was too much. What about Peter Mayle? I cannot remember the author but try A Year in the Merde-the author is pretty right on about the French-this is not so much a travel book, than a book about a Brit who finds himself unemployed in Australia Fat, Forty and Fired.

    • Kim July 25, 2010, 8:40 pm

      Esme: Thanks for the recommendations, I’ll look for those next time I’m having a travel book bug. I’m sorry you didn’t like the Gilman book, I really loved that one.

  • Eva July 21, 2010, 12:37 am

    I actually tend to prefer travel blogs to travel books. 🙂 In fact, until last year I’d never really read a travelogue and usually avoided them! Now I read them a bit more frequently (I think I enjoyed Sunburned Country more than you), but not enough that I feel like an ‘expert’ or anything. My favourite travelogues usually involve slow travel and/or an author who speaks enough of the language to communicate better with locals and/or a woman author (they’re less prone to sexist passages that make me angry). The fastest way to make me hate a travelogue is when the author thinks their culture is so much better and constantly makes deprecating comparisons between their home country and the one they’re travelling in. Also, authors who don’t seem aware of history, or even worse airbrush it (*cough* British authors travelling to former British colonies *cough*). And I don’t like travelogues that include the kind of stunts that scream ‘look at me! look at me!’ or ‘aren’t I brave in this dangerous 3rd world country?!’ (which is why I declined a review copy of that Lunatic Express book, lol). It’s interesting how we all have different expectations!

    • Kim July 25, 2010, 8:52 pm

      Eva: I’ve never regularly read travel blogs, but I imagine they would be a good way to experience a place. I think the deprecating comparisons turn me off to a travel story too. It’s fine to make comparisons, but seems silly if the traveler’s home country always comes out on top. I felt like The Lunatic Express stayed away from the stunt stuff pretty well, but can see why that would be a problem.

  • Laurie July 21, 2010, 6:03 am

    LOVE this thread. for those who say they enjoy books about foreign experience where the person knows the language and immerses himself in the culture (or herself), can i recommend “the places in between” by cory stewart? not a travel book exactly, but he walked across Afghanistan in the winter of 2001–he knows many of the languages, and understands the culture, and it’s probably the most intelligent and fascinating book i’ve read in years.

    another similar, less political book, is “tracks,” by robyn davidson–she walked across the australian outback with three camels. great book.

    • Kim July 25, 2010, 8:52 pm

      Laurie: Thanks for the recommendations to add to the thread. I love all the recommendations too.

  • Laurie July 21, 2010, 6:03 am

    crap. i mean RORY stewart. not cory. sorry.

  • diana mack July 21, 2010, 6:49 am

    gotta disagree with you on this one
    i remember reading a walk in the woods and crying because i was laughing so hard
    the only one of his i haven’t read was the short history of everything one…because it is so long!!!!

    • Kim July 25, 2010, 8:54 pm

      diana mack: Please, disagree! I think it’s all a matter of personal taste. I like the irony of a short history being too long 🙂

  • Jeanne July 21, 2010, 7:14 am

    I haven’t found a travelogue yet that I loved–something always irritates me a bit, but I keep reading them because I love the bits of incidental knowledge, like all the venomous creatures In A Sunburned Country. I prefer armchair traveler books, ones that have something in particular to present to me.

    • Kim July 25, 2010, 8:55 pm

      Jeanne: I love the incidental knowledge too — those were some of my favorite parts of this Bryson book.

  • Ash July 21, 2010, 8:45 am

    I adore travel writing and my favorite travelogues are from people who really engage themselves in the environment. In Philip Graham’s The Moon, Come to Earth he moves to Lisbon with his family for a year. His daughter is sent to school and plays with children from the area and his wife and he makes friends with neighbors and so on. By the end of the book I felt I got a good sense of the place, but what made me really like the book was that something happens to his family while they are there and I won’t say what it is but it’s a bit of a bad deal. It kind of makes you realize that life happens everywhere, not just where you’re used to living. Overall though I’d say I enjoy travel writing from people who have spent long period of time in a place rather than a few weeks. I’m listening to a Bryson audiobook right now and really enjoying it! It’s Tales of a Thunderbolt Kid. I’m probably enjoying it because it’s about his childhood in Des Moines, IA and that is where I am from as well.

    • Kim July 25, 2010, 8:57 pm

      Ash: That sounds like a great book — thanks for the recommendation! I read a book last year about a family that moved to Greece and had some of the same sorts of things in it. I liked getting to see the town and his neighbors over a whole year rather than just for a little while, too.

      I started listening to Thunderbolt Kid, but I had to return it to the library before I heard the end. I was liking it though.

  • Jeane July 21, 2010, 3:38 pm

    I travel very tame, like you. I can imagine it would not be at all interesting to read about! I don’t read very many travelogues, but when I do I want them to delve into the culture and give me a rich sense of other place (as I will probably never to there myself in person, so I want to live it vicariously through the book!)

    • Kim July 25, 2010, 8:58 pm

      Jeane: That’s almost exactly how I feel. I’d never write a traveloge — it would be so boring!

  • softdrink July 21, 2010, 8:41 pm

    I like my travelogues like you do…I want total immersion in a place. I have to be in the right mood for Bryson…sometimes he works for me, but I agree he gets quite snarky. A little bit of Bryson can go a long way.

    When I travel I love to soak up the sights and the history, but I’m also like you in that I don’t interact much with the natives (or other travelers).

    • Kim July 25, 2010, 8:59 pm

      softdrink: I’m going to wait a bit, and then maybe try Bryson again. The back to back part of it might have impacted how I felt about this book too.

  • Fyrefly July 23, 2010, 10:14 am

    I don’t read enough travelogues to really have an opinion on them one way or another, but I see where you’re coming from re: Bryson. If you haven’t read it, you might want to try A Walk in the Woods, just because the point of the Appalachian Trail is that you’re alone most of the time, and he doesn’t have the option of retiring to the nearest pub every night.

    I’m actually going to Australia for the first time this fall and was thinking of listening to this in preparation. I still probably will, but do you have any other more-lively travelogue recommendations?

    • Kim July 25, 2010, 9:01 pm

      Fyrefly: That’s why I think I might like that book better than these. I love Bryson’s humor, but just haven’t found the book quite yet.

      Hmmm… I’m not sure if I have any better recommendations for a book on Australia, this was my first one. But there have been a lot of other good travel books suggested in the other comments that could be fun choices.

  • Colleen (Books in the City) July 25, 2010, 3:39 pm

    Your perspective on Bryson and his lack in interaction while traveling is interesting – I enjoy his stuff but now that I think of it he is quite the loner!

    I appreciate humor in my travelogues (which is why I enjoy Bryson – even though his humor can be heavy on the snark). I also enjoyed Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven!

    • Kim July 25, 2010, 9:03 pm

      Colleen: I hadn’t noticed it as much until Laurie mentioned it on my last review, but after that I couldn’t stop noticing it. I found it sort of odd!

      I’m glad you liked Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, it’s one of my recent favorite books.

  • Laurie July 26, 2010, 5:02 am

    tony horwitz has a book about australia that’s pretty interesting. and then there’s robyn davidson’s “tracks,” but hers would only be useful if you plan on walking across the outback with some camels. great book, though.