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.
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!