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19 July 2006

Travel guides and travelogues

Yesterday, Danielle at A Work In Progress and Dorothy at Of books and bicycles wrote about the nature of the essay as compared to other genres of writing. While I had been not been thinking about essays, I had been contemplating various forms of non-fiction writing as most of my reading has been non-fiction for the last few weeks.

On the work front, I've been reading an informative but dry book related to project management. In my real reading life, I've been immersed in travel books, which led me to thinking about the various types available for both the "armchair traveler" and one planning a journey, as well as books that are not guides, but capture in words an unforgettable feeling of place.

There are travel books that provide useful, practical information that a traveler needs to know: transportation, museum hours, eating and sleeping options. There are several imprints available, and each tries to distinguish itself from others by appealing to a certain sensibility. For example, the Rick Steves' guides, popularized by the PBS series, appeals to the "backdoor" traveler, someone looking for an authentic, less Disneyfied experience while traveling frugally. The Cadogan and Michelin guides tend to be very heavy on background information. These are the types of guide books that I want to read before I go, and refer to later if I want more information, but they tend to be too heavy to tote with you. Rough Guides fall somewhere between the two -- placing in context various sites, but giving tips on best values for the independent traveler.

Then there are travel guides that are glossy, picture books featuring highlights of various areas of a country. While beautiful to look at, most I've read tend to not give you things in context. Featured sites may be miles apart, or inaccessible to the casual traveler. These are the kind of books I like to peruse when I'm considering a trip to a certain destination: what might I see if I go there? where in a country should I travel? I find that these are great for fueling my wanderlust but I'd never plan the logistics of a trip with one.

I have a variety of each of these kinds of books in my library and use all types when I plan a journey. Last December, a holiday gift for a family member was an assortment of books on Ireland for planning her next trip: an "ahh! Look at the pretty pictures; I want to go there!" type, a practical guide listing B&B's, restaurants and golf courses throughout the Emerald Isle, and a book that I skimmed while in the bookstore that made me laugh aloud -- Round Ireland with a Fridge about a man who hitched around Ireland with -- you guess it -- a refrigerator! That's the kind of book that I think can be most valuable for learning about a place, whether you ever travel there or not. Being careful to not break the bindings, I couldn't help but skim through each book before I wrapped it in gift paper, even though I have no plans to travel to Ireland in the foreseeable future.

Which brings me to my current reading: The City of Falling Angels, by John Berendt. The first few pages captured me, painting a picture of Venice that no travel guide could. In the first few pages of the prologue, Berendt retells a conversation with a Venetian:

Everyone in Venice is acting...Everyone plays a role, and the role changes. The key to understanding Venetians is rhythm--the rhythm of the lagoon, the rhythm of the water, the tides, the waves....

The rhythm in Venice is like breathing...high water, high pressure: tense. Low water, low pressure: relaxed. Venetians are not at all atuned to the rhythm of the wheel, that is for other places, places with motor vehicles. Ours is the rhythm of the Adriatic. The rhythm of the sea. In Venice the rhythm flows along with the tide....

Do you see a bridge as an obstacle--as just another set of steps to climb to get from one side of a canal to the other? We Venetians do not see bridges as obstacles. To us bridges are transitions. We go over them very slowly. They are part of the rhythm. They are the links between two parts of a theatre...We cross from one reality to another reality. From one street...to another street....

Sunlight on a canal is reflected up through a window onto the ceiling, then from the ceiling onto a vase, and from the vase onto a glass, or a silver bowl. Which is the real sunlight? Which is the real reflection?

What is true? What is not true? The answer is not so simple, because the truth can change. I can change. You can change. That is the Venice effect.

Then, with an air of finality, he said, "Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we say.

In the next 20 pages Berendt not only describes the physical aspects of Venice, but also writes about it's history, the burning of its famed opera house in 1996, politics, the canals, Murano glass-making, rats (both human and animal varieties), and its fall to Napoleon, while reminding the reader that Venice is just barely twice the size of Central Park. While I could gather this information in a guide, Berendt is attempting something other than just information. He writes that his interest is "...not Venice per se but people who live in Venice, which is not the same thing. Nor apparently, had it been a comon approach in books about Venice". Yet, he can't separate the people from the place and writes that he chose Venice because it "is uniquely beautiful, isolated, inward-looking, and a powerful stimulant to the senses, the intellect, and the imagination....And, because, if the worst-case scenario for the rising sea level were to be believed, Venice might not be there very long".

I've only read about 40 pages of Berendt's book, so I can't say whether he lives up to his stated purpose, but it certainly has captured me and perhaps I'll find time to finish it before I board a plane for vacation in a few days. In flight, I'll have time to think about the differences between the kind of book that provides you with useful, factual information and the informative writing that goes beyond journalism, beyond description, to provide you with much more.

5 comments:

Dorothy W. said...

Genre distinctions are always so complicated! I'd actually like to read more contemporary travel -- not guides, but the descriptive, travelogue type of travel writing, the kind that captures the atmosphere of a place.

Cam said...

Dorothy -- Have you read Twain's Following the Equator? I've only read excerpts from it, but one of these days I'll read the whole thing. It's not contemporary, but I'd recommend it based on the small portions I've read. There is a chapter titled "What Cecil Rhodes Found in the Shark", that explains how Rhodes became one of the richest men of his time -- and if the story is true, it was all because of what he found in a shark's belly. Fascinating!

In addition to the Berendt's book two contemporary travel books that I have had in my TBR pile since May are William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways (which I read most of when it was published in the early 80s) and his most recent River Horse, about his crossing the US by boat. I went to a non-reading he did in May. A 'non-reading' because he said he didn't like to read his work, but he'd rather talk about travel and answer questions. He only read one small passage. It was really interesting, but his books are lengthy so I've been putting off beginning.

Dorothy W. said...

No, I haven't read any of those books, but they sound great! Thanks for the recommendations.

chiefbiscuit said...

That 'Round Ireland With A Fridge' sounds a hoot - I'm sure my son at present in Japan would love to read it - I am going to pass the title on to him.

Danielle said...

I love travel books too--the travelogue type. My recent favorites are Annie Hawe's books about living in Italy and Carol Drinkwater's about France--and both about growing olives! It is the closest I get to going anywhere exotic these days!