Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Destination: Paradise

I recently received a gift in the mail, a slim volume about the size of an envelope, with a red cloth cover. In plain white letters across the top it read: The Portable Paradise, and, below the title, was a quote from E.M. Forester's A Room with a View" "'Tut, tut, Miss Lucy! I hope we shall soon emancipate you from Baedeker.'"

The author, Jonathan Keates, introduces himself in the beginning pages as a collector of old travel guidebooks. The guidebook, Keates claims, is as valid a genre of literature as Fiction, Poetry, or the Essay. Through an old Baedeker, one might read the world. In the anonymous voices of the guides, as they observe local customs, advise you where to stay, and even in their silence about particular topics, the contemporary reader is offered a vivid glimpse of the history, culture, literature, and mannerisms of the time period in which the guidebook was written.

Delighted as I was by this concept, I was even more thrilled to find, in a recent arrival to the shelves of Destination Literature, an even more comprehensive history of travel--or, if Keates' theory is right--a history of the world through travel.

In Peter Whitfield's Travel: A Literary History is one of the first full surveys of travel literature through history, roving from Marco Polo to Henry James. Beginning with the pre-history of the genre and moving through the Age of Discovery to the Grand Tours of the eighteenth century and the taming of America's wilds in the nineteenth century, Whitfield takes us all the way up to the boom of travel writing over the last century, comparing the works of Forester, Durrell, Waugh, Fermor, Bowles, and Lawrence.

The Baedeker guidebooks, both Keates and Whitfield could tell you, were some of the first replacements of the cicerone, or chaperone, of young people's travels to the continent in the eighteenth century. With a guidebook in your pack, you were free to travel the world on your own. Today we are guided not only by the descendants of the Baedeker, such as Lonely Planet and Rick Steve's, but also have access to innumerable literary guides, as outlined by Whitfield. Comb his survey for writers who have written on your favorite destinations, or simply browse our shelves.

I'm always surprised to find some of my favorite fiction writers not only traveled the world, but wrote about their travels. We have Goethe on Italy and Hemingway on Paris. We have Emerson's English Traits and James' English Hours. Even E.E. Cummings wrote a book on his travels to Soviet Russia. We have the travel writing of Lawrence Durrell, Robert Lewis Stevenson, and Somerset Maugham. Let's hope we are never emancipated from such Baedekers.

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