Armchair traveling


I’m a big fan of travel books.

I’m not talking about travel guides, like the Frommer’s Guides to … just about everywhere on earth. Or the ones for thrifty folk on how to do New York (or Paris or London) on ten dollars a day, which I can assure is not possible. I’ve tried it. There are too many  book shops and enticing eateries in those cities to keep me anywhere near such a ludicrous budget.

So a good bit of my traveling has been vicarious, through the narratives of people who actually went places, and wrote about their experiences so that I can visit them too, on the cheap and without the hassle of getting there.

Many a writer of fiction who took vacations discovered that even in distant lands they were still writers. Mark Twain’s reports of his visit to Europe are priceless. Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling wrote almost as many narratives of their travels as they did novels. One of John Steinbeck’s finest efforts was Travels with Charley, his retelling of his trek across America with his dog as his only companion. Mary Shelley, who gave us Frankenstein, also gave us Rambles in Germany and Italy and Ian Flemming, who gave us James Bond, also gave us Thrilling Cities.

This unique genre of literature where the authors go wandering far and wide and tell the stories of the people and places they find offers wonderful reading and excellent examples of vivid descriptions of settings for writers in general.

An old book titled In Search of England sat patiently on my shelf for a long time, waiting for me to pay it some attention. I bought it at a used book store years ago because the title sounded interesting. And because it was cheap. When I wanted something other than a novel last week I pulled it down, started reading, and was hooked. The author, H. V. Morton, a young veteran of  World War I in the 1920s with a new little motor car and what he called “all my roads before me”, set out to explore the country he’d been fighting for in the trenches of the battlefields in France.

His accounts of puttering into one little village after another, of partaking of scones with Devonshire cream in friendly farmhouses and pints of ale in little pubs, of standing at misty sunrise at Stonehenge, of gazing out at the old harbor that the Mayflower sailed from are all fascinating. Morton, in those pages written almost a century ago, found not only England but himself.

He also found his life’s work. Before his death in 1979 he wrote dozens of travel narratives about places the world over. I’ve already ordered a few of them from Used copies, of course, where I paid more for the postage than the book.

I think I’ve already established that I’m cheap.

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