The Best American Travel Writing 2001 by Paul Theroux, editor

Houghton Mifflin Company 2001 320 pp. $27.00/13.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


The Best American Travel Writing 2001  is here, thanks to Jason Wilson, indefatigable series editor, and Paul Theroux, this year’s guest editor.  This slab of reports on what Pico Iyer calls “the conspiracy of perception and imagination” introduces the reader not only to tales from abroad but also to stimulating reflections on what it means to travel. 

Book those tickets now for Verkhoyansk, in the republic of Sakha, in northeastern Siberia, the coldest place on earth, a place where “at minus-sixty and below, a dense fog settles in the streets, and pedestrians leave recognizable outlines bored into the mist behind them.”

Or, follow Tim Cahill up an erupting volcano in Ecuador, where he reasons, “you're a journalist, you say it's your job, you say it's your beat.  Like the moth mindlessly circling a flickering candle, you have no choice.  And although you may not be brave as a matter of course, you advance into the flame with a kind of terror-struck courage.  You are, in short, a moron."

The book is not all about danger, however.  Indeed, the travel writing connoisseur may find some of these tales a bit precious,  as we read of an African camp, outfitted with "commodious wall tents with cots, a large, communal mess tent, outdoor showers, portable privies in canvas enclosures, laundry service, and a six-man staff to do the cooking and camp chores." 

However, Janet Malcolm reminds us of the universality of travel when visiting a tiny Russian town.  “First thing Angela asked me was more or less the same question I’d been asked on small island in the Pacific, in the Caribbean, and indeed all over the world: Did I know her cousin in Brooklyn?”

In addition to the sheer entertainment value of travel tales, they give us an opportunity to reflect on the nature of travel itself.  Editor Theroux thinks he knows what travel is. 

"Travel writing at its best relates a journey of discovery that is frequently risky and sometimes grim and often pure horror, with a happy ending: to hell and back.  The traveler ends up at home and seizes your wrist with his skinny hand and holds you with his glittering eye and relates his spellbinding tale."

What Theroux doesn’t admit about such tales is that the journey that explores the world while simultaneously testing the self is, above all, bourgeois.  The traveler, as surely as the tourist, belongs to the capitalist leisure class.  The traveler has the white skin and implicit trust in the future engendering adventures that may disquiet the Borders / audience, but that look to most of the world as a form of individuated imperialism: here's my credit card--help me find myself.

Pico Iyer agrees, having none of the “self-discovery through personal challenge” school that seeks to separate the world into travelers and tourists.  “Perhaps the real distinction lies between those who leave their assumptions at home and those who don't: Among those who don't, a tourist is just someone who complains, ‘nothing here is the way it is at home,’ while a traveler is one who grumbles, ‘Everything here is the same as it is in Cairo--or Cuzco or Kathmandu.’  It's all very much the same."

Regardless of your position on the traveler/tourist argument, I think you’ll find that some excerpts in this volume seemed to have wandered in from some other book.  Consider Susan Minot’s report of child-soldiers in Africa or Patrick Symmes’ meeting with a Colombian guerilla leader.  These are important issues, but journalistic reportage should not be confused with travel writing. 

In the best traveler’s tales, according to Theroux, “horror is recollected in tranquility.”   Travel is a “rewarding misery” that, as Iyer notes, exposes us as "optimists abroad as readily as pessimists at home."   Those whose appetite for the world exceeds their VISA limit should dive into The Best American Travel Writing 2001.