Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Summer's for traveling . . . or reading about traveling, at least.

Summer, with its travels and porch sitting and distractions (like getting a dog!) has flown by, and suddenly here we are in mid-July. Which means I'm overdue to point you to a very short piece I wrote for the July issue of Open Letters Monthly.

When Steve Donoghue asked me to write on a favorite travel book, I knew immediately which it would be: H. R. Tomlinson's The Sea and the Jungle, from 1912. Why? The explanation is at the link, along with recommendations by a number of other writers.

The only other real contenders were Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs and C. M. Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta. The former, however, is as much about returning as about traveling--it's about a summer spent in one place, a coastal village in Maine, the kind of place that a person visits only with plans to return again and again:
When one really knows a village like this and its surroundings, it is like becoming acquainted with a single person. The process of falling in love at first sight is as final as it is swift in such a case, but the growth of true friendship may be a life-long affair.
The latter, meanwhile, is the book of a traveler who determinedly sinks into a culture with no eye towards ever leaving again. T. E. Lawrence, in his introduction, writes of Doughty,
His seeing is altogether English, yet at the same time his externals, his manners, his dress, and his speech were Arabic, and nomad Arab, of the desert. . . . His record ebbs and flows with his experience, and by reading not a part of the book but all of it you obtain a many-sided sympathetic vision, in the round, of his companions of these stormy and eventful years.
So Tomlinson it was: a book by an Englishman setting out on an adventure of the sort that occupies the imaginations of childhood summers, a book on which to set dreams of faraway lands from your porch.

"A pleasure it is," writes Doughty, in a paragraph that could stand for the pleasures of travel writing, "to listen to the cheerful musing Beduin talk, a lesson in the travellers' school of mere humanity,--and there is no land so perilous which by humanity he may not pass, for man is of one mind everywhere, ay."