Hey, I Don’t Hate ALL Travel Writers

Five Great Travel Books and One Reasonable Request

While I was editor of Travelocity magazine (2000-01), we published an ambitious piece titled “The 100 Best Travel Books Ever Written.” The list included the expected heavyweights — Twain, Theroux, Chatwin, McPhee, Heat-Moon, Bryson — alongside unexpected picks by writers such as James Fenton, Michael Crichton, and Dr. Suess. I like to remind people of this list because, particularly in the wake of the publication of “Smile When You’re Lying,” I’ve occasionally been accused of having it in for travel writers. And while it’s true that there are few things I enjoy complaining about more than bad travel writing, there are few things I enjoy reading more than good travel writing. Since short of combing through the stacks of files in my basement it’s almost impossible to unearth a copy of the long-forgotten January/February 2001 issue of Travelocity magazine, here’s a short selection of travel books I admire, each published since 2000.

The eXile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia
By Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi
More than any book I know, this compendium of The eXile, a biweekly English-language Moscow tabloid founded by the authors (Taibbi now writes even sharper copy as a political columnist for Rolling Stone) sums up the thrilling, tedious, and difficult life of expats, from meeting the “Mongolian Dennis Rodman” to the dead return to “dull, sexless America.”

Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir
By Matthew Chapman
Like all good travel writing, Chapman uses his destination as mere starting point for a story broad enough to take in a number of topics — in this case, science, religion, education, and his own history. The great-great grandson of Charles Darwin, Englishman Chapman travels to exotic Dayton, Tennessee, site of the Scopes-Monkey Trial, to understand both sides of the argument his ancestor so infamously began.

Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile’s Pilgrimage to the Mother Country
By Joe Queenan
I just opened my copy to find a good line and here’s what was on the first random page I looked at: “The current occupant of the throne, Elizabeth II, has presided with great aplomb and dignity over the gradual but inevitable disintegration of the British Empire. Neither flashy nor communicative, this paragon of bourgeoisie taste and homespun attire seems like a very nice old lady who has had the misfortune to be hemmed in by a self-replicating battalion of ding-dongs.” I love Queenan because you can open to just about any page of his books and find gems like that.

Boeing Versus Airbus: The Inside Story of the Greatest International Competition in Business
By John Newhouse
More of a business book than a travel book, but Newhouse is so good at relating the inside details of the dramatic rivalry between the aviation giants that you learn a lot about modern travel in the process. In discussions of America’s trade deficits and export imbalances, few people realize that Boeing is the United States’ number-one exporter and has been for fifty years. We need to pay attention to this stuff.

Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story
By Chuck Klosterman
At some point in his/her life, every freelancer in America will try to talk an editor into funding a self-indulgent “Road trip across America” story. Klosterman is one of the few writers good enough to land the dream gig and then sharp and funny enough to turn the trip into a book you can read three or four times and still laugh at. Klosterman’s journey to places where famous rockers met their demise (Buddy Holly, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kurt Cobain, etc.) gets diverted in favor of impromptu side trips to visit ex-girlfriends and sample the gastronomic delights of Cracker Barrel.

Closed on Sunday: And Other Pleasant Surprises For the Small-Town Lutheran
By Garrison Keillor
OK, I made up the title. This book doesn’t exist. But since Garrison Keillor is the modern Mark Twain, and since he’s been around the world many times over, if he’d ever break down and do a travel book, I’m certain it’d instantly appear at the top of lists like this one.

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