Saturday, October 01, 2011

Like the people in your Introductory Mandarin class who were actually born in China...

Travel books puzzle me.  I’ve never really understood their purpose.

Is it to inspire?  To give you that kick in the pants you so desperately need to get off your lazy keister and see the world?

Is it to inform you about some part of the world you’re never going to see because your keister is just too lazy to be moved, not that you have the money to move it further than down the road anyway?

Is it to give you another perspective on a place you already know?

Is it merely to entertain?

The travel books I’ve read fall into two categories: the ones with a fairly cohesive plot that could be classified as memoirs, and the ones without a plot that are basically The Lonely Planet, but written in the first person.  A Year in Provence?  Category one.  Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw?  Category two. 

Books in the first category I get.  They’re stories, and the attraction of stories is something I understand.  We call them travel books not just because the setting is particularly important to the narrator – though it is, and sometimes it seems like another main character – but also because it is new.  To Kill a Mockingbird plays out against a backdrop of the South, and the South couldn’t be dissociated from the story, but you wouldn’t call that a travel book because it’s set where the main character has lived her whole life.  Compare that with something like Into Thin Air.

It’s books in the second category that confuse me.  Why would you want to read about what someone else saw when they went to some place that you’ve never been?  None of it should really mean anything to you, should it?

I just finished In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson.  (This was one of the two books I picked up at Barnes & Noble in August and probably the last new book I will read for quite some time, now that I’m back in Sydney where new books are almost as expensive as bananas.  In order to make it last, I was restricted to reading it only over breakfast and on the train home.) 

This book falls squarely into category two.  There’s no plot; the author just travels about the country, describing what he did, what he saw, which museums he visited, which bits of history he learned, what his perceptions were.  And I loved it.  The guy has a way of making even the most benign activities entertaining.  There’s quite a lot of history, but not the tedious kind where they go on and on about people you’ve never heard of, in places you’ve never heard of, doing things of no particular consequence – or, I should say, because he does go on about that sort of thing a fair bit – that it’s not the kind of history that seems tedious.

I hadn’t realised, for instance, that Aborigines arrived in Australia by crossing an ocean approximately 30,000 years before anyone else in the world mastered seafaring.  I didn't know that the convicts who settled here were often only small-time thieves, either.  Exile is a big price to pay for a stealing a loaf of bread.

Bryson’s descriptions of his explorations through Western Australia and the Northern Territory, where I haven’t been yet, were a fairly strong kick in the pants for me, but what I loved the most were the parts about the places I know.  As he went traipsing around Sydney, I could follow along in my head and see the landmarks and neighbourhoods he was describing.  When he went to Canberra, he suggested that if the reader ever makes that trip, “don’t leave your hotel without a good map, a compass, several days’ provisions, and a cell phone with the number of a rescue service.”  I got looks on the train as I tried not to laugh too loudly.  He was spot on.

This is what made me wonder.  Would I have enjoyed the book as much as I did if I’d never set foot in Australia, or do you really get more out of reading this sort of thing if you know the terrain?  Is a puzzlement...

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