In Peter Whitfield's recent Travel: A Literary History, some of the earliest travel writing he chronicles are stories like Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid, travelers' tales we tend to think of as more myth than history, more fiction than fact. And yet the adventures of heroes like Odysseus move us like all quixotic quests, and Whitfield includes them in his survey, arguing in one interview with the New York Times, that "travel literature existed for centuries, but not in its own right. It was...always involved with other things—war and conquest, religion, history writing, commerce, science, poetry." To do justice to the genre, Whitfield does not confine himself to categorical "true" stories, plumbing history and legend alike for stories of adventure, intrigue, and discovery.
Many of these early travel tales, like Homer's Odyssey, were passed on orally before they were written down, a form of storytelling that in our culture may now manifest itself in pod casts. Storytelling, however, seems to me to be travel writing at its primitive, and perhaps best, form: the traveler returns and naturally has tales to relate to family and friends--on the ride home from the airport, or as she settles in around the dinner table. Maybe this is why it felt so natural for me, who rarely listens to audio books, to take in some travel writing through the ear.
The BBC recently released a compilation of travel writers reading their adventures or commenting on the nature of travel and travel writing in general. The Spoken Word: Travel Writers contains tracks from renowned writers such as Freya Stark, Peter Fleming, Wilfred Thesiger, and Jan Morris.
I listened in awe as Leonard D.A. Hussey described the makeshift shelter in which he and Shackleton's crew took refuge when stranded on Elephant Island, Jan Morris transported me back to the shores of Trieste where time stands still and the sun hovers golden over the Adriatic, Rosita Forbes described her encounters with Arab woman in the 1930s, and Freya Stark explored what it means to be a true explorer. "In spite of all hardships, discomforts and sicknesses, the lure of exploration still continues to be one of the strongest lodestars of the human spirit," Stark reflects, "and will be so while there is the rim of an unknown horizon, in this world or the next."
To hear these wise and well weathered voices gathered together like some travel writers' reunion around a universal campfire felt like a form of travel itself, transporting me across time and into distant lands, to the back of a camel, to the summit of a mountain, to the expanse of a sparkling sea, to a seat around a welcoming fire.
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