Seeing the World through Books
Over 100 years after his death, Mark Twain is still making headlines—and not just in the literary world. Last month, PsyPost.com ran a piece announcing, “New study confirms Mark Twain’s saying: Travel is fatal to prejudice.” The study, first published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, showed evidence that traveling really does cause us to be more open-minded about other people and cultures, as Twain famously noted in The Innocents Abroad. As he wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
But what about reading about travel? It might not be the same as actually heading out of town, but seeing the world through someone else’s eyes is better than never seeing it at all (not to mention it’s a lot cheaper). In the best travel writing, it is almost as if you’re there with the author, seeing, smelling, exploring, learning, and as so often happens when you’re on the road, either laughing or cringing. So for those of us who might be holed up on the home front for the foreseeable future, here are a few books by Big Read authors that will hopefully expand both your geographic and intellectual horizons. At the very least, they’re all fantastic reads.
The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
Since this was the book that inspired this post, let’s start here. First published in 1869, The Innocents Abroad chronicles Twain’s trip aboard the Quaker City as he cruised through Europe on his way to the Holy Land. The book, which began life as a series of letters written for various newspapers, was Twain’s best-selling volume during his lifetime, and helped cement the author’s national reputation. As The Atlantic Monthly wrote in a December 1869 review, “[T]his book ought to secure him something better than the uncertain standing of a popular favorite. It is no business of ours to fix his rank among the humorists California has given us, but we think he is, in an entirely different way from all the others, quite worthy of the company of the best.”
Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica by Zora Neale Hurston
Although Zora Neale is probably best known for her cultural explorations of the South, she also applied her background in anthropology to Central America and the Caribbean. With support from a 1937 Guggenheim Fellowship, Hurston visited Haiti and Jamaica a number of times to conduct research for Tell My Horse, which was published in 1938. Part travelogue and part ethnographic study, the book touches on religious rituals, racial attitudes, politics, and history. A 1938 New York Times review of Tell My Horse describes how Hurston “writes of all this with sympathy and level-headed balance, with no sensationalism, in a style which is vivid, sometimes lyrical, occasionally strikingly dramatic, yet simple and unrestrained.” In other words, classic Hurston.
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
How many literary love letters have been written about Paris? Probably a bajillion. But still, there’s something particularly moving about Hemingway’s memoir of his youth, perhaps because it was written through the lens of nostalgia. Published posthumously, A Moveable Feast is a poignant account of the time Hemingway lived in Paris as a young man. There was the romance of young love (he was on his first of four wives), the struggles of a poor, ambitious young writer, and fascinating glimpses into the expat intelligentsia, which included the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound. In perhaps the book’s most famous quote, Hemingway writes: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” And if you weren’t that lucky, this book makes for a pretty good replacement.
A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck was already a successful novelist and short story writer when A Russian Journal was published in 1948. Teaming up with famed photojournalist Robert Capa, Steinbeck traveled the USSR in order to document post-war life in the Communist country. It was an attempt to peer beyond the standard political and military newsmakers, and instead provide an objective account of what day-to-day life was like for the average Soviet. These days, the book has become a historic document of early Cold War life as seen through the eyes of an American.
In Morocco by Edith Wharton
Although closely linked with her estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, Wharton spent a good deal of time traveling and living abroad. Luckily for us, she wrote about many of her experiences in books such as Italian Villas and Their Gardens, French Ways and Their Meaning, and A Motor-Flight Through France. But with In Morocco, Wharton departed from the well-worn paths of Europe to give us one of the first English-language travel books about the North African country. Published in 1920 when Morocco was still a protectorate of France, the book draws heavily on the romance and exoticism associated with the region, painting an evocative portrait both of Moroccan history and Wharton’s own impressions. Although parts of the book are somewhat dated, it still holds up: even Fodor’s recommends it as prepatory reading before your next trip to Morocco.