Top Ten Tuesday:
Top Ten Books That Would Be On My Syllabus If I Taught (When I Teach) Contemporary Travel Literature 101
(Brought to you by The Broke and the Bookish)
What a fitting topic as I head back to school in less than a week! As I am looking down the long (and yet, in some ways, not long enough) tunnel of writing my thesis on contemporary travel literature this term, thoughts of what I would teach in a course like this are rattling around my brain. The genre is huge and there are so many directions a professor could take, but since this imaginary course is a “101,” I think overview is the way to go!
I had to whittle this list down two different times, as I couldn’t decide which books would be best for an overview course. There are so many great options and routes that could be taken. If I actually taught this course, I may end up doing a handful of assigned books and then requiring students to choose one or two individually and then present them to the class. How else do you cover so much material?!
(As always, my list is presented in alphabetical order. )
Bird of Life, Bird of Death by Johnathan Evan Maslow- This is one of the oldest books on the list, written in the mid- 80s, but I like the way Maslow mixes ecology, politics, history and mythology into his travelogue of his search for the quetzal bird in Guatemala. While some authors are very inward focused in their journeys, Maslow takes a different view, leaving himself out of the equation and focusing on the trip and its background.
Blood River by Tim Butcher– Also a great travelogue that focuses on history and culture, Butcher’s book includes more personal tales and takes a decidedly more inward-view of his travels. We learn as much about the author as we do the Congo in this example of contemporary travel writing.
Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon – A great look at travel in the United States. Often, when we think of travel, we think of far-flung locales, but Heat-Moon has created a beautiful reflection of “off the beaten path” USA.
Chasing the Sea by Tom Bissell – Returned Peace Corps volunteers are a staple of the travel writing genre and any course on the topic has to have at least one. (While Bissell did not complete his service in Uzbekistan, his seven months in-country were the basis for why he returned and wrote his book.) While the stated topic of the book is the disappearing Aral Sea, the bulk of this travelogue is more about Bissell returning to the place where he previously struggled, tying up loose ends and making connections he missed out on the first time around.
Looking for Lovedu by Ann Jones- Another book based in Africa, but this time from a woman’s point of view and with an extremely different goal. While Butcher is retracing the steps of a famed journalist, Jones is searching for a matriarchal tribe based in southern Africa, but decides to traverse the continent from north to south on the way there.
The Cambridge Introduction to Travel Writing by Tim Youngs- Since we are talking about a college course, having some theory and background in travel writing is key to fully understanding the genre. Rather than just reading travelogue after travelogue, a discussion of the history and literary past is key. Youngs book is a perfect introduction to the genre.
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux- No course in contemporary travel writing would be complete without a taste of Theroux!
Tourists with Typewriters by Patrick Holland –Another book of theory on the travel writing genre, Holland takes a critical look at where the genre has been and what the future holds for it. He brings up important topics such as imperialism and privilege within the genre- topics that are a necessary part of any academic discussion of contemporary travel writing.
Travel Writing by Carl Thompson- This would be the *first* book my students read as a part of a course on travel writing. Thompson breaks down where the genre has been and the basic literary theory that makes up the foundations of academic study, but does so in a very digestible way. I would consider this a must-read for an academic course on this genre.
Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier- Frazier’s travelogue is long, but worth the read for students, not only because his book deals with a different region than all of the others on the list, but because he does a great job of tying together the personal narrative/memoir aspect of the genre with historical and political background of the places he travels.