Why is most travel writing so bad?

The most painful sections of a bookshop to have to read through would be the management books, self-help, and also the travel books.  Yet management, self-help, and travel are all very important and indeed extremely interesting matters, so I am wondering why these books are so bad.  Today let’s focus on travel.

My biggest complaint is that travel books seem not to discriminate between what the reader might care about or not.  Here is a randomly chosen passage from a recent travel book of Jedidiah Jenkins:

We walked our bikes over one more bridge and into Tijuana.  Weston was barefoot, which he noted out loud as we entered Mexico.  We got on our bikes and rode into immediate chaos.

Or this:

I drank my coffee and read the news on my phone.  I felt him sitting next to me.

Who cares? And who is Weston anyway?  (Longer excerpts would not seduce you.)  Yet this book — To Shake the Sleeping Self: A Journey from Oregon to Patagonia, and a Quest for a Life with No Regret — has 85 reviews on Amazon with an average of four and a half stars and it was a NYT bestseller.

Is travel like (some) sex, namely that you can’t write about it because it is viscerally exciting in a “you had to be there” way?  Why cannot that constraint be overcome by shifting the focus to matters more factual?

Too many travel books seem like an inefficient blending of memoir, novel, and travel narration, and they are throughout too light on information.  Ideally I want someone with a background in geography, natural history, or maybe urban studies to serve up a semi-rigorous account of what they are doing and seeing.

Here is one mood-affiliated blurb for the Jenkins book:

“A thrilling, tender, utterly absorbing book. With winning candor, Jedidiah Jenkins takes us with him as he bicycles across two continents and delves deeply into his own beautiful heart. We laugh. We cry. We feel the glory and the agony of his adventure; the monotony and the magic; the grace and the grit. Every page of this book made me ache to know what happened next. Every chapter shimmered with truth. It’s an unforgettable debut.”
Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things

What do people want from travel books anyway?  It seems the Jenkins work sold well because he is famous on Instagram, which may or may not correlate with book-writing skills.

Here is another randomly chosen passage:

I wait.  I drink some more water.  It sit in the grass and chat with the others.  I have a few false starts: “Ooh, I’m feeling it…just kidding, no I’m not.”  “Okay, now I am!  No, that’s an ant on my ankle.”

Is the problem an absence of barriers to entry for writing travel books?  That many books will sell automatically “by country” rather than because of the quality of their content, leading to an excessively segmented market?  Other travel book readers seem to obsess over the mode of transportation, such as whether a particular trip was undertaken by bicycle.  Are there too many celebrities and semi-celebrities trying their hand at a relatively easy-to-fudge literary genre?

What are the microfoundations for this failure in the quality of travel books?

Here are various lists of the best travel books of all time.  Even there I find many overrated, noting that Elizabeth Gilbert is better than most.

If you are wondering, three of my favorite travel books are Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, David G. Campbell, The Crystal Desert: Summers in Antarctica, and also Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, perhaps the best travel book ever written.

Somebody — fix this problem!

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Are travel books written for people who travel (like TC)? Or for people who do not? If I do not, or cannot, maybe I want to feel the Mexican ant on my leg...

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We both eyed the sweet and sour pork. I looked at Xi and he at me. I giggled and then caved into his demands.

...is the NY Times best selling Youtuber gay? I got some homoerotic vibes from the passages, maybe that explains his popularity. The sex scenes might be male-to-male.

Bonus trivia: Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East Paperback – June 18, 1989 by Pico Iyer was pretty good, because it covered all the countries of southeast Asia in twenty pages per country, not too long, and it's a time capsule of a way of life now gone; ditto Patrick Leigh Fermor's writings on Greece (he smoked 80-100 cigarettes a day, and lived to age 96, before dying of cancer!); and some works by Paul Theroux are pretty good.

On my wish list: I'd like to see a movie adaption of "Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa" by Mungo Park (11 September 1771 – 1806). Wakanda!?

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This is too easy. Travel books are written to make money, which means they aim for the masses, rather than those small number of people with extremely refined taste like Tyler Cowen.

International travel skews towards the affluent and educated so LCD explanations aren't very helpful.

Perhaps people give as little thought to the literary qualities of travel books as they do for diet books.

International travel might skew that way, but the books are most likely for those who don't travel.

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I have a suspicion that travel books are written to entertain middle-aged women, given the likely demographics of people who read, and who hope to travel more than they do.

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That explains the high quality of the writing in the airline magazines that I find in seatback pockets.

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Quite frankly, Tyler's travel-blog posts aren't any kind of revelation, either, so perhaps a bit of humility is in order here.

+1

This post was a little, "why doesn't every market offering cater to me, personally?"

A better post would be, "what sorting mechanism will emerge to keep the growing/niching travel/management/self-help book market in an efficiency-of-navigation equilibrium?

Maybe he should keep two separate amazon accounts, one for himself personally, one for books he needs to talk about professionally, and let the amazon algorithm train on clean data for the first; he might be surprised how much more sense the market makes.

Also: find it funny how may posts are just travel books the poster has read and liked, no other commentary offered: a post like that is simply the banal navel gazing Tyler bemoans. Callow travelogues of the library of the poster. No self awareness.

Speaking as a woman
If you like various vicarious sufferings
Including hypothermia hunger dehydration carbon monoxide poisoning bad language near death and death like we do try the Boardman Tasker omnibus

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Management books have the highest BS to actionable advice ratio out there. Unfortunately a lot of American managers mindlessly repeat the buzz words believing they will get the required output of their line workers. It is also very difficult for the working man to argue for or against the nebulous ideas represented by said buzz words. "Lean In" anyone?

Self help is full of hocus pocus, why? Because the subject matter is so dang hard. A lot of religious books fit this exact category.

Travel books had their hey day in the past when it was much more expensive to travel or otherwise get information about the outside world. These days a quick jaunt through Youtube, Wikipedia, and a quick Google search will get you a good 80% of the way there without the tedious security theater of travel these days.

Actually a lot of management books do contain good ideas, usually written by high IQ reflective thinkers. The problem is translating them to the average manager level, which is perhaps just above average IQ. Things have to be dumbed down and translated into simply buzz words to get any value out of them.

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Pico Iyer & Paul Theroux for sure.

Video Night in Kathmandu is a favorite

Theroux is very very good but I suspect that Tyler would judge him to be "light on information" and hewing too close to "memoir".

Tyler correctly asks the question "What do people want from travel books anyway?" but his preferences I suspect represent a narrow niche of the book-buying public. He wants writers "with a background in geography, natural history, or maybe urban studies".

Maybe for Tyler the best travel writer would be Alexis de Tocqueville reporting on his travels in America. Or even James Michener's novels. Those books really attempt to get at the soul and social structures of a place. Or Herodotus.

For actual research before journeying to a place, I prefer a travel guidebook, Bradt Guides for backcountry travel in out-of-the-way places and Lonely Planet Guides for more conventional travel. But that's not the type of book that Tyler's talking about either.

For the more in-depth look at a place that Tyler's looking for, I'm not sure that a travel writer is the person to look for. Instead, de Tocqueville or the like to provide Tyler's requested analytical observations. Or Strayed and the like if we want to get inside the head of the traveller (which Tyler definitely does not want to do, but other readers do).

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A lot of travel books, such as "Eat, Pray, Love" and "Strayed," are by women writers for women readers who are more interested in the inner life of the author than the place visited. They are more accounts of self-therapy in scenic settings than intended to be informative about the places visited.

I meant "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed, although I suspect the implications of the name "Strayed" (i.e., off the straight and narrow path) likely helped sales.

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The best travel books were written by Englishmen who combined serious interest in the places they were visiting, with a British imperial self-confidence (even if unconscious) that allowed them to maintain a dispassionate distance. That would be people like Norman Lewis, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Bruce Chatwin. Theroux and Naipaul clearly see themselves in that tradition, although neither is British.

Surprised that Tyler mentions none of the above. Is it because most of these writers have a reputation for making things up?

Patrick Leigh Fermor's books "A Time of Gifts" and "Between the Woods and the Water" are excellent. He traveled through Central Europe in 1933-34 and wrote the books in the 1970s based on his diary. They are both joyous and sad, as the writer knew what was in store for Europe in the decades after the traveler's journey. A world he clearly loved, gone forever. Maybe not enough "information" for TC, though.

+1

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Thanks for the recs! I love this type of travelogue - one that captures the feeling of a lost time and place and makes you feel like you've been there. They're far better than any history class about the particular period in question. My personal favorites in this vein are "Roughing It" by Mark Twain, "The Colossus of Maroussi" by Henry Miller, and "News From Tartary" by Peter Fleming. "A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush" is probably my favorite travelogue of all time, but it doesn't fit in the same vein as the others.

Try Waugh’s prewar travel writing.

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I agree with Tyler's 'thesis' that a lot of travel writing is 'bad,' but my perspective comes from liking the genre, or at least the successful examples of it. Having read extensively in the genre, I would say this comment is astute: "The best travel books were written by Englishmen who combined serious interest in the places they were visiting, with a British imperial self-confidence (even if unconscious) that allowed them to maintain a dispassionate distance."

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PA - you should include Thesiger's "Life of my Choice" and "The Marsh Arabs".

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As for English writers with a strong background in natural history and geography taking advantage of Britannia's rule of the waves, I recommend Charles Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle."

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Dervla Murphy's cycling-across-Afghanistan-and-over-the-Khyber-Pass travelogue "Full Tilt" is the exception that proves the rule, though perhaps if she had written it forty years later, she would have given it a an "Eat Pray" spin.

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Why do middle-class women make such a big deal out of traveling? It seems to be a status-thing for them, but I don't get the evolutionary-psychological function of it. Their travel-achievements certainly don't make them more attractive. (Same with their high boots, but that's a separate mystery.)

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...Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, perhaps the best travel book ever written."

Great Book (and sad and depressing) , but didn't think of it as a Travel book.

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I question the absence from your list of Jan Morris, especially her book
Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. I would also include Jean-Paul
Kauffmann's The Arch of Kerguelen.

Jan Morris in a man.

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Is Tyler laying the groundwork for his own travel memoir? Eat Blog Blog, perhaps?

it should be 'Eat Read Blog'

That's him all right!

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This article is self-contradictory. "travel books seem not to discriminate between what the reader might care about or not" and later "Ideally I want someone with a background in geography, natural history, or maybe urban studies to serve up a semi-rigorous account of what they are doing and seeing". Maybe other readers and/or travelers are interested in romance when they travel and do not care much about a place history or topology.

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Does Bill Bryson count as travel writer? "Notes from a Small Island" is very good.

Quite. He is (a) funny and (b) informative. I think he also does give an impression of place, and not in a "land of contrasts" or "monotony and the magic" (do you want monotony in a book?) kind of way, but by explaining what the place is really like. I think it makes a difference that he travels to English-speaking countries (his Australia book is also fun) so he can actually understand what is going on.

Bryson also has a knack for drawing the characters he encounters, rather than always thinking me me me. My wife had some audiobook (Walk in the Woods) where he is hiking the Apppalachian Trail and I was lol in the car.

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Jim Rogers' 1994 travel book: "Investment Biker: Around the World" had its moments (being chased by a knife welding black man looking for a treasure trove in the way of Rogers' wares was interesting), Che Guevara's Motorcycle Diaries had good parts, but one of my favorites, because it's so obscure, and read between the lines condescending but funny, yet written in a simplistic (Straussian?) way in sixth grade English, is : "So You Want to be a Ferry Pilot?" by Spike Nasmyth (about airplanes, not boats, it's pretty funny because it accurate explains Third World incompetence where everybody pretends to be an expert in everything even though it might cost you your life; the book is dedicated to Nasmyth's Western pilot friend who vanished in the Pacific without a trace, probably from bad maintenance on the rickety airplane he was transporting for a client, very common if you read Nasmyth's book), and the memoir "Old Times in the Upper Mississippi" by George Byron Merrick (covers 1854-1863 in ferry boat piloting, by which time the industry was quite mature and beyond the old "Mark Twain" era)

Hemingway is the best travel writer ever.
Churchill and hunter thompson also very good. Bryson is excellent and Jim rogers as you mention is a classic book.

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Is this criticism of travel books a way to enhance the reputation of Juan Pablo Villarino and promote his new book?

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I would include Platform from Houellebecq, a masterpiece about a certain reality of tourism.

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Is there a travel book whose main premise is "I went to that country and it was terrible"? I mean, how do only positive experiences turn into books. Is it lack of demand? I would happily read a book about how bad some places on Earth are.

Try VS Naipaul's books on e.g. India or Iran. "An area of darkness" was banned in India as soon as it was published, because of its "negative portrayal of India and its people". If that is not praise enough, I may add that the likes of Edward Said accused him of being "a witness for the Western prosecution" and what have you not.

"Domestic Manners of the Americans" got its author burned in effigy. A fun read and a down-to-earth counterpoint to de Tocqueville.

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If you look at the description of Maximum City, one of Tyler's top 3, it's precisely what you're asking for.

"He approaches the city from unexpected angles, taking us into the criminal underworld of rival Muslim and Hindu gangs, following the life of a bar dancer raised amid poverty and abuse, opening the door into the inner sanctums of Bollywood, and delving into the stories of the countless villagers who come in search of a better life and end up living on the sidewalks."

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I recommend P J O'Rourke's HOLIDAYS IN HELL.

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"American Notes for General Circulation" by Charles Dickens

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If you like a high quality vicarious travel
Whinging and suffering try the Boardman Tasker omnibus

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1) Management books are self-help for men.

2) In at least 42 parallel universes, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is recognized as the best travel book ever written.

3) As for more conventional travel books, no mention of Naipaul? Many travel writers seem to be relentlessly nice folks who want to like, and be liked by, everyone they meet, and thus they end up saying a lot of flattering things and little that seems true. For all his faults, that's one thing Naipaul was not guilty of.

4) If one reads earlier generations of anthropologists like Malinowski or Leach or Evans-Pritchard as a form of travel literature, they are rather entertaining. (With a few notable exceptions like Napoleon Chagnon, it is hard to think of contemporary anthropologists worth reading.)

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Have you read Down to the Sea in Ships by Horatio Clare?

It's about life aboard container ships.

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Try "Adventures of an Indian Tramp" by Capt. F. D. Colaabavala.

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Some of the best travel writing is on the web, e.g. Maciej Ceglowski (https://idlewords.com/travel/) or Craig Mod (https://craigmod.com/essays/smartphones_in_myanmar/ or https://walkkumano.com)

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"Travel Books" covers too wide a category to give meaningful criticism. It includes books which are strictly practical, all the way to books where the protagonist has experiences which happen to occur overseas. If Tyler is looking for the practical book, of course the experiential one won't fit. For simply reading enjoyment, I liked "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush" as well as "The Worst Journey in the World" but I wouldn't then to plan my trip to those places.

Here is a good list of Travel Classics;
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Picador_Travel_Classics

Around 2004 National Geographic Travel magazine published a list of the "100 Greatest Adventure Books" and did a pretty solid job. They (correctly IMO) had at #1 Apsley Cherry-Garrard's _The Worst Journey in the World_; _A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush_ was also high on their list. As were other works cited in these comments such as Eric Hansen's _Stranger in the Forest_, Wilfred Thesiger's _Arabian Sands_, etc.

Annoyingly, Natl Geo seems to have taken the list off of their website. There are many websites that purport to show you the list but many of them display signs of unreliability such as calling them the "100 greatest adventure novels" or citing Robert Falcon Scott as the author of _The Worst Journey in the World_. (Cherry-Garrard wisely published huge sections of Scott's journals, but he was the book's author, not Scott.)

A couple of random observations: adventure books are not the same as travel books but are arguably a sub-genre.

Natl Geo's list is biased toward books by the actual adventurers. So Ernest Shackleton's account of his epic journey is on the list as is Worsley's (the captain of the ship), but not works by Lansing, et al. Lewis and Clark's journals are #2 on the Natl Geo list but no works by people who wrote about the journey of the Corps of Discovery such as Stephen Ambrose. Not a bad bias to have. Still, there are works by Jon Krakauer, Sebastian Junger, etc. on the list.

Oops, I forgot to give the URL for a list that does seem to be an accurate reproduction of Natl Geo's list:
http://www.ronwatters.com/BkNGAList.htm

And a final random observation. Merida comments "Most travel books suffer from the EGO seeping through. Books about mountain expeditions are usually a nightmare."

I agree, this is a common pitfall for adventure books. People bragging about their stunts is un-compelling literature about un-compelling activities. Hilary and Norgay summiting Mt. Everest was a legitimate Big Deal. Everyone who followed them, not so much.

IIRC Oscar Wilde described a fox hunt as "the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible". People climbing summits -- and then writing about it -- is "the unspeakable in pursuit of the ineffable".

You're free to do whatever you want on your own time; climb Mt. Everest, do needlepoint, play Russian roulette. But the notion that those activities are noteworthy and that the rest of us would want to read about it ... I'd rather read somebody's suggestions for how to drive along I-5 between California and Oregon in the winter, there might be some practical information there.

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Ed Viesturs' "The Will to Climb" is a really good read, about the many attempts on Annapurna.
Mountaineering books are some of my favorite travel books, as climbers are the only ones who will ever go those places.

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Travel books are commissioned by travel book companies, from Western people they know who also travel a lot. Those people are often young career travellers in need of money for a reason: their character don't fit into an office. And there aren't many of them. In the hostels of every city when travelling in the outback (favorites right now are the Silk Road, Patagonia, and Central America) you will meet a few but not many.
They get mostly advances, and use them to fuel their travel hobby. Bad (no?) incentives for selling a lot of books are the rule. The editors ask them to write about stuff they will not know much about (who is a good historian of the place, knowledgeable about the bar scene, the local music, art and other museums, budget travel options and luxury hotels, outoor activities, and traveling with children, all in one person?).
Travel information dates quickly, especially about restaurants.
I personally liked Goethe's Italian Journey best as a travel guide.

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For a good selection of the best travel writing try reading the winners and shortlist of the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards, there are a number of categories: Best Book, Best Adventure Travel Book, Children's Travel book, Fiction with a sense of place, and Travel Cookery book, not to mention an award for Outstanding Contribution to Travel Writing (2018 = Jan Morris). It is a UK-based award, but many of the authors hail from across the globe.

If you liked The Road to Oxiana, you should try In the Light Garden of the Angel King by Peter Levi (1984), a trip to Afghanistan in 1970 with Bruce Chatwin and his wife. Levi was a Jesuit priest, an archaeologist, and poet (later professor at Oxford) and writes very well. It's especially interesting on Gandhara and ancient Greek and Buddhist archaeology, and as a record of the country when it was pleasant, before the conflagration.

...“and as a record of the country when it was pleasant, before the conflagration.“

Don’t you mean before the spread of militant Wahhabist Islam?

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Waugh's novels, such as Black Mischief and Scoop (both inspired by visits to Ethiopia), typically started out as travel articles and then travel books. The novels are his best work, but his travel books are quite good, and enjoyable for seeing the basis of his famous novels. "When the Going Was Good" is a one volume collection of Waugh's best travel writing.

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An example of a good travel book is Peter Mayle's memoir A Year in Provence. But that's not really a travel book. That's my point. I'm not alone - Sailer seems to be on it too. A friend traveled to France about 20 years ago. I gave her my copy of Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. But that's a novel. That's my point. We went here, we went there, we saw this, we saw that. That's a travel book. It might be a decent map, but it tells little or nothing about the place. And yes, while in Provence I drank my share of Pastis.

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My top 7 travel books:

7. Stranger in the Forest, Eric Hansen (Borneo)
6. The Island Within, Richard Nelson (Pacific NW)
5. This Divided Island, Samanth Subramaniam (Sri Lanka)
4. The Ponds of Kalambayi, Mike Tidwell (Congo)
3. The Fruit Palace, Charles Nichol (Colombia)
2. No Mercy, Redmond O'Hanlon (Congo)
1. Voices of the Old Sea, Norman Lewis (Spain)

Redmond O'Hanlon's In Trouble Again: A Journey Between the Orinoco and the Amazon is great.

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my nomination for Perhaps the best travel book of all time. Jerome.K.Jerome
From Wikipedia:
:Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog): published in 1889[1], is a humorous account by English writer Jerome K. Jerome of a two-week boating holiday on the Thames from Kingston upon Thames to Oxford and back to Kingston. The book was initially intended to be a serious travel guide,[2] with accounts of local history along the route, but the humorous elements took over to the point where the serious and somewhat sentimental passages seem a distraction to the comic novel.

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Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River by Alice Albinia

Yes, Suketu Mehta's book is superb, one of my all-time favorites, but, as has been noted, is it a travel book? coming-home book? portrait/bio-sketch of a city book? does it matter?

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I know! For years I have always written up little summaries of my yearly vacation for friends, and it's always so tempting to get into the minutiae of things like exactly what spot you were in (in case anyone wants to look it up on a map) - you know very well they don't care. I always tried to focus on what they might actually enjoy reading about. Granted, since they were my friends, they were usually most interested in getting to the inevitable part where me & the husband have a big fight, and that might not be what I would focus on if this were for Tyler or the general public, but the principle is the same - think of your audience!

I'm looking forward to Tyler tearing apart self-help because the genre is one of my weaknesses.

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You are a guy who travels around and writes about what he ate.

You are the very last person on Earth to be criticizing travel writing.

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TL;DR Travel writing is bad for the same reason that specialists are usually more successful then generalists.

Travel for its own sake is an empty endeavor. Much more important is what you will do in your travels. Books written about different cultures or cuisines or artists or languages are not strictly travel books. As such books that are strictly about travelling attract writers that have no specific interests and are therefore not very interesting, with the rare exception of writers that have interests in everything.

Of the books you named, only one seems to be true travel writing. The others seem to be a History of Antarctica and a sociological study of Bombay (how could a book about Bombay written by a Bombay native be considered travel writing?).

+1

Travel writing is what’s left when you take the interesting bits out of some other topic.

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Most travel books suffer from the EGO seeping through. Books about mountain expeditions are usually a nightmare. One exception the Austrian Tichy. Paul Bowles is good, Theroux ...

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Travel writing needs to be honest and opinionated. It can't just read like a promo from the local tourist development office. See VS Naipaul on his travels through India, or the Muslim world on how it should be done.

The writer also needs to have either 1) a deep understanding of the culture to be able to explain to the reader the meaning of of their observations; or 2) a very keen eye to point out what they see as being different or interesting and why the reader should care.

Most writers today feel they shouldn't compare or criticize the culture of the country they're visiting. This makes the writing boring and bland. You really need to be brave to write well, and this especially applies to travel writing.

Think how horribly dull most of the articles you find in the glossy magazines on an airplane are. Same goes with the new Lonely Planet magazine, which is a real shame.

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One obvious issue is that the audience is going to be pretty variable. You want history, geography, etc. I want geology, natural history, and bars, with maybe some Medieval history thrown in if possible. Some want to read the book to have the visceral experience of having been there, without the need to go there--Tacitus' travel books were like this, for example, and they're still published today.

The problem is, how do you cater to a market that's highly variable? You can try to carve out a niche in that market, but that limits your potential sales. Or you can try to appeal to everyone, which leads to a shallow, superficial experience that pleases no one.

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Older travel writing is better. Mark Twain, for example. But I fear it is precisely his style that modern writers are trying to emulate, but without his talent. Another good one from times past would be Bayard Taylor, although most modern readers would probably fine his prose too dense. Most of the British mountaineers before 1952 were fine travel writers. And how shall we count John Wesley Powell? Or Lewis and Clark?

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TC, you must read 'The inland sea' by Donald Richie if you have not yet. In my opinion the best travel book on Japan of all time.

And for Spain, give Michener's Iberia a try. I think you've mentioned that you don't enjoy Michener, but this is the book that got me hooked on Spain and introduced me to many cultural figures from Spanish history that I never knew of. He covers the whole gamut from literature, painting, philosophy and classical music. Also Hemingway, the history of the feria in Seville, Camino de Santiago, etc. Can't think of an aspect of Spanish history and culture that it doesn't cover. It is dated however having been written in the early 1960's.

Have you read "The Roads to Sata" by Alan Booth? That's a superb piece of travel writing on Japan.

Yes, great as well. But I’m in the Richie camp over the Booth one because of the long digressions Richie takes into Japanese history and literature. There’s some of this in Alan Booth too but I enjoy Donald Richie more for some reason.

Thanks for the explanation — I've been meaning to read 'The inland sea'; now I'm more motivated to.

I just love this book. Some people are a bit scandalized by the frank sexual nature of his discussions though, so something to be aware of! If I recall, Booth goes into this a bit too, but Richie definitely pushes the boundaries. He was not a person who cared what other people thought, so I imagine he doesn't fit well with the current environment.

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I've mainly just read articles by Donald Richie rather than books but even his articles are amazing, with their astute eye for culture and society and deep knowledge of Japan -- and the US as well. I look forward to reading his books, I'll probably start with _The Inland Sea_.

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My two favorite travel books are "Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes" by Robert Louis Stevenson and "The Long Walk" by Sławomir Rawicz--this last has been described as fictional--in which case, it is a pretty good novel.

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This is an old problem. It will not be easy to fix.

First sentence of the famous "Tristes Tropiques" (1955) by Claude Levi-Strauss: "I hate travelling and explorers. Yet here I am proposing to tell the story of my expeditions.” If there is any ambiguity, the continuation makes clear that what he hates is not traveling per say, but travelers who have come back home and tell, on writings, conferences, or films, about their travels.

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A few recommendations, in addition to the many good ones above:
William Blacker - Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania
Alan Booth - The Roads to Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan
Joseph Brodsky - Watermark
William Dalrymple's travel writing
Daniel L. Everett - Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle
William Finnegan - Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life
- Joshua Jelly-Schapiro - Island People: The Caribbean and the World
The books of Robert D. Kaplan, generally.
Kapka Kassabova - Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe
Geoffrey Moorhouse - The Fearful Void
Rebecca West - Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

I was gonna recommend Kaplan as well, though in his older age, he's become kind of a crazy old man on a rocking chair constantly screaming about how U.S. geography makes us exceptional.

But those older works of his are absolutely fascinating and usually cause me to emerge with 50 new books to go find on the given area he was in.

And that's given him enough credit where I'll still read his new stuff where he shouts about tying onions to his belt (which was the fashion at the time).

I actually met him in a social setting (where people were probably unfamiliar with his work), and attempted to talk to him about his books; he was very modest and seemed to want to avoid that discussion. (Fair enough; the event wasn't a book reading.) In response to your comment, Kaplan has introduced me to many books and thinkers and I appreciate his ability to do that. I thought Theroux was good at that, but Kaplan is better.

Agreed, I mistakenly described him as a bit nutty in person when I mean that his more recent books SOUND like a shouting old man at time harping on their old stuff that made them famous way back when even though times have changed a bit. But, to be fair, that's really everyone that every has a great work and then keeps living. :-P

He grew in me an appreciation for finding very obscure "travel" books from other times and ages. A look can be learned from what those people though from their times and how they saw what was going on around them. As I suppose, a lot can be learned from the author commentary on Weston having no shoes in our time..... ;-p

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I think most travel writing is pretty bad because the writers are usually vacuous and dont have much insight, historical, cultural, linguistic, into what they are writing about. Also a lot of the world today is fairly homogeneous so writers pretend that what they are seeing is novel or exciting when it isn't. Neal Ascherson's Black Sea is terrific if you want to call it travel writing.

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Pray, do tell: what exactly is the "new value" of travel literature in this century of Technogenic Climate Change?

Travel, travel companies, and travel literature all look suddenly suspect.

Perhaps travel writing must become positively discouraging to get anyone's attention: otherwise, when might we expect legitimate concerns with the advent of Technogenic Climate Change to begin affecting seriously political and economic (and TRAVEL) calculations?

Or: what might the quality of travel writing matter when over one-fifth of American adults (some forty million and counting) are functionally illiterate (illiterate outright or considerably sub-literate)?

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You should adjust your expectations. Travel writing is a genre of memoir. It’s generally for people who like traveling or want to travel who want to read primarily about the experience of travel. If you want to read about the history, art, sociology, etc of foreign places, you should history, art, sociology about those places. If you wish travel writing were less about the traveler and their subjective experience of travel, the genre is going to be disappointing to you. And Maximum City - while a great book - is not a good benchmark for travel writing. It is an in-depth and eclectic portrait of a place and the people who live there by someone with a lot of local knowledge who lived there. Although the author is a character in the book, he is not its subject. it Is not a story about traveling in Mumbai.

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Tyler Cowen is one of the best travel writers alive so to hear him complain about travel writing can be read as some sort of sotto voce trolling exercise. In any case, his asking his relatively uninformed commentariat (us) why travel writing is bad is more-or-less exactly what it was like to be pulled into a dialog with Socrates. Awesome.

To answer one of Tyler's sub-questions: in our visual age, the barrier to entry to travel-writing is an excellent camera and the ability to use it. Few give a damn about your words, which will be skimmed or more likely ignored. Homo Sapiens Sapiens are the worst.

Rick Steves is a good travel writer and the late, deeply lamented, Anthony Bourdain was exquisite. Shame on you Tyler if you think their relative paucity of academic certifications connotes anything but the thing itself.

The most important part of excellent travel writing is an insatiable, unsophisticated curiosity, honed over years of practice trekking.

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Back when I could still understand David Foster Wallace he did this wonderful piece on cruise ships

https://harpers.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/HarpersMagazine-1996-01-0007859.pdf

David Foster Wallace would have made one of the greatest travel writers alive, but his depression meant he rarely left the US.

I read him as a kind of "travel writer" of the US, providing incredibly incisive and amusing insight into the country. (I'm not from the US so anything set in the states is abroad for me.)

Don't miss his trip to a midwestern state fair, also available online in the Harper's archive

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The problem, is not that the barriers to entry are so low but that modern travel writing is more focused on mood, atmosphere, and surface-level appearance than it is on the deeper substance of a place. Contrast any of the works cited in the post above with Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, where hardly a page goes by without a detailed lesson on history, geography or architecture.

The best travel writing has a kind of sugar-coated didacticism that complements the purely experiential passages. If the sole goal of the work is to convey a mood or feeling you are more often than not going to get fragmentary first person writing focused on the mundane aspects of travel that feels more like private diary entries or bad pop song lyrics, because that is the easiest way to convey mood.

Not that purely mood/atmosphere-oriented travel writing is per se bad. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s work is a great counter-example. But with Fermor the writing is so rich and detailed that the feelings of the places he describes come across as rare and unique things, whereas with most modern travel writers the feelings they convey are generic, off-the-shelf and boring.

Maybe the answer is that we don’t need better writers, we need better travelers?

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I think the rings of saturn by Sebald could be considered a travel book it works by mixing historical facts and the present and who the author is, what his story is that is sometimes alluded to but never outright described

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Rory Stewart's _The Places In Between_ is another one for the best-of list.

There is a distinction that ought to be made here between "pop travel writing" and "travel literature." Naipaul, Theroux, Fermor, Stewart, Bourdain, Rebecca West, etc fall into the latter category. There's no real reason why the two should be shelved together; their audiences and aims are more different than similar.

What you need for good travel literature is:
-- well-honed writing skill grounded in a literary tradition
-- self-knowledge without self-obsession
-- deep existing knowledge of the world
-- seriously focused curiosity about expanding one's knowledge

More generally, that's what you need for most kinds of worthwhile writing. Pop travel writers don't have those things. Neither does almost any writer of self-help or management books, thus the poor quality of almost all of those.

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The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth - my favourite and the only travel book I've read more than once.

Currently reading The Places In Between by Rory Stewart. It's about his walk across Afghanistan in 2002. He's a UK MP. I recommend the book - he's smart and brave (or stupid). I wish we had more MPs like him.

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So much travel writing is done that necessarily a large amount will be dreck.

I've ordered Maximum Cityon the strength of Cowen's recommendation but until I have read it, I will maintain that the best travel book ever written is of course Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Of couse to be pedantic one could say Os Lusíadas by Luís Vaz de Camões is the true best travel writing but I will leave epic poetry out of this.

Ordered two others from the comments as well but they are both explorer journals. A useful division in the travel writing genre might be to split out explorer's journals, remembrances, and other such books as a separate category. Other useful categories of travel literature to help one find what one likes, might include as mentioned above anthropology studies, as well as accounts of military campaigns (for example Helmet for my Pillow by Robert Leckie) and fictional travel novels (for example Max and the Cats by Moacyr Scliar).

It might be an idiosyncracy but explorer journals make for great reading. Got a treasure trove of leads on these from Unfabling the East by Jürgen Osterhammel and have not finished with these but some excellent explorer books I've read and can recommend in the past year or so include Richard Francis Burton's Goa and the Blue Mountains and his First Footsteps in East Africa, Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain, The Account by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs by Wilfrid Thesiger, and Bernal Díaz del Castillo's True History of the Conquest of New Spain.

Isabella Bird almost fits the explorer journal category (actually letters to her sister). Truly remarkable victorian lady traveller. Little known now, but parts of her life would make a great movie.

Thanks for the tip! I am starting Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. Extra value with Bird is that there are free kindle versions of her books available on Amazon.

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Depends on the explorer. If you read someone in a field you're knowledgeable in, it'll be interesting. For example, I have a book of travel stories from paleontologists. Reading about the variety of ways they protected fossils during travel, or bribing officials with alcohol, or the like is deeply amusing for someone who's done it; to someone who hasn't it would quickly get tedious. And inversely, reading the journals of someone in a field you aren't in can be tremendously frustrating. Louis and Clark's journals are hard to read, because they miss all the good stuff!

Yes, when the explorer is doing something interesting it helps a lot. I have to agree on Lewis and Clark which I never finished. May I ask the title of the paleontolgy travel story collection?

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One of the most enjoyable and yet insightful travel books I have read was "Holidays in Hell" by P.J. O'Rourke.

+1

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What institutional concern does our global Travel Industry have with the advent of Technogenic Climate Change?

Has our global travel industry begun to significantly (exclusively?) foster sailing excursions and horseback riding, gliding and walking, in countries of origin as in countries of destination?

(When, that is, might Naomi Klein WALK to her next book-peddling venue? When might Tyler SAIL to his, for that matter?)

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I have a similar problem with so much science writing. The author travels to meet scientist X, tells us about where she works, what she looks like, how she's different from other scientists, includes a good deal of history and at least one good anecdote. There are quotes from other scientists about her and eventually what she's discovered, often described in gee whiz terms.

I think that's because many science writers don't actually know much about science, so they are looking for the 'human interest' angle.

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I don't read travel literature. Can we please move on to management and self help criticisms?

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I like Mark Twain's "A Tramp Abroad".

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Sturgeon's Law?

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Why is this Jenkins representative? Sorry, but you've posted on this subject more productively in the past.

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> I have a few false starts: “Ooh, I’m feeling it…just kidding, no I’m not.”

This is a passage about an experience on a psychedelic drug. Hard to understand how an expert on natural history or urban studies could have added something.

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I had a travel blog during my 555 days of world travel. It was an exercise in repetitive narcissism like only a 25 year old backpacker could. Travel writing is inherently selfish and myopic as it is often a tale of self-exploration and discovery with insipid insights. In maintaining my writing I found how bland the world is to write about, unless you are anchored somewhere long enought that it reveals the confounding complexities that stir beneath the surface of any society.

When traveled in my 20s, I kept a journal on one of my first trips and was so horrified at the results that I stopped taking notes on my trips for a long time. I now kick myself, because even bad, self-conscious commentary contains some facts. So it's great you have a record of your trip, even if it's not great for public consumption!

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Is Weston a soccer ball?

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As a travel writer myself, I agree that most of the genre is pretty bad.

I wrote a massive response comment, but now it's long enough to be an essay, so I won't post it all here.

A couple of big points:

The bestselling "travel" books I'd more rightly call "journey" books, and yes, they are more inner-focused (Strayed actively pushed back on her editor's request for more nature description; good for her for knowing what her book was about). People like reading about other people.

Travel is an exception in that, unlike other genres, it's OK to not be an expert in what you're writing about. I'd actually blame this odd fact on the "classic" travel writers that so many people are citing as good examples of the genre--so many of them were gentleman explorers who just traipsed around and described their first encounters with natives. When I was working on my book, I reread Paul Theroux, whom I had previously enjoyed, and was struck by how caricatured his depictions of people were in countries he didn't know well; they got better as he traveled into parts of Africa where he'd spent more time.

Some travel writing I really like:
--Kapka Kassabova's "Border" (cited by CWC upthread; it's very ornate writing at the start, which I think might deter some people, but stick with it)
--Tim Mackintosh-Smith's books about Ibn Battuta and his wonderful book about Yemen
--less typically, Tamara Shopsin's "Mumbai New York Scranton," where her descriptions of India were thrilling and also contradict my premise that the best writing comes from experts about a place.

Then again, "Maximum City" is fantastic, and yes, should be considered travel, because it's about place. I'd like to see the genre definition expanded a bit, to include atypical travelers, such as people like Mehta, who are insider/outsiders, and, say, immigrants and refugees.

The trick (or one of the tricks, anyway) is balancing knowledge with a sense of discovery. It was one of the challenges of writing my book (All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World--blurbed by Suketu Mehta, FWIW), but I'm pleased with the results. Funny story, btw: my editor at one point said it was "too much of a travel book," which was upsetting because I was, um, writing a travel book. We finally figured out that she meant that there was too much description of transport, and she was right that I could stand to lose some of the bus interludes.

Finally: every travel writer should read writing about their own home, so they know what it feels like to be the object of that scrutiny, especially when it's wrong. When I was working on my book, I read "America in an Arab Mirror," an edited volume of writing about the US. Super-illuminating.

PS, maybe of interest to economics-minded readers: travel writing is definitely not lucrative, and it's very difficult to sell a book proposal for a trip you have yet to make. The vast majority of travel books, by first-time writers at least, are based on trips they made and then wrote a proposal and sold. There's a lot of discussion now in the field about who gets to be a travel writer, due to the finances of it, and I'd agree this is why a lot of it skews toward upper-middle-class white dudes.

Notably, "Eat Pray Love" was sold before the travel was done (as she explains in the book), but Elizabeth Gilbert was an established writer at that point. I was also exceptionally lucky to sell the proposal for my book before I'd done the travel that was to provide the structure of the book; many editors passed solely on the basis of this. In hindsight, I'm more sympathetic to this, as my finished book was vastly different from what I proposed, and editors don't like these surprises (and it was a lot of work for me).

And finally...book publishing is a surprisingly conservative industry. Editors are always looking for "the next X," where X was the unexpected breakout hit. But editors don't always look for the different, unexpected thing. They look instead for an imitation of X--or they try to recast an interesting, different thing as "the next X," so readers are disappointed when it's not X. Books are a weird business.

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Had to check if Hemingway was mentioned, but looks like I'm late for the party.
Anyways - the world just grew too small for good travel books. If any Instagramm jerk can travel to exotic places, maybe it's not such a great sensation that we should read about it. Only fine people can write find the fine parts of adventures, and we are living in an age where such men (and women) are too busy to practice the art of leading a diary about theese.

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IMO the best books to travel with are not travel books -- for the reasons Tyler pointed out. Better to go for a literature masterpiece, as long as narration takes place in the country you're visiting.
Think Shantaram for India. Or Orwell's Burmese days for Myanmar.

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Great post, thanks! And I love and recommend Paul Theroux.

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I have always desired to write a travel book about Greenland: the nature, its other-worldly culture, the economic struggle for political independence, the climate change, the history, its role during WWII and the Cold War, among other topics. A place apparently so distant from us, yet interconnected with us. Looking forward to going back and exploring every corner.

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