Nine Subversive Travel Books
Travel Books: Thomas Kohnstamm celebrates books that really rocked the boat
01.12.10 | 12:17 PM ET
Take a spin through the travel section at your average Barnes & Noble and you’ll be confronted with memoirs about learning to cook Italian comfort food under the tutelage of a wisecracking Tuscan grandmother, a meditation or 12 on rediscovering romance in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and stories about how weird China is—written by monolingual, white Americans.
ALSO SEE: Nine Subversive Travel Novels
The mainstream travel genre does indeed favor saccharine escapism. And there is nothing wrong with upbeat armchair travel. But non-fiction travel writing can also be so much more. Travel writing has long been a source of subversive thought and an incisive commentary about mankind and the world around us. Here are nine titles that have really rocked the boat.
‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara
Since exceedingly successful capitalists like Britney and Jay-Z donned Che T-shirts (not to mention millionaire Mike Tyson’s Che tattoo), it’s become trite to use Guevara as an example of anything seriously subversive. However, Guevara’s youthful Motorcycle Diaries is rebellious in ways that are not immediately obvious. This travelogue shows Ernesto the Medical Student developing a sense of Pan-Latin Americanism that fuses the interests of indigenous Andean peasants with traditional adversaries like upper-middle-class Argentine intellectuals (i.e. Guevara). The book ventures a unified regional opposition to U.S. hegemony and global capitalism’s sometimes ravaging effects on Latin America.
‘The Art of Travel’ by Alain de Botton
Like many of de Botton’s books, The Art of Travel dissects a popular theme (travel) and gives you iconoclastic philosophy 101. This series of essays argues, perhaps correctly, that most people don’t enjoy travel as much as they do anticipating it or reflecting upon it. He also explores our motivations for travel and how travel does or does not actually fulfill our expectations. This book is not outwardly subversive, but it inspires readers to consider who they are, how they relate to place and—once all romantic notions and delusions are stripped away—the actual purpose and effect of travel.
‘A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains’ by Isabella Bird
The British explorer Isabella Bird was an invalid whose doctor recommended fresh air. She took that literally, and spent most of the next 40 years on a solo world tour. A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, from 1879, is a volume of letters detailing Bird’s perilous and sometimes hilarious horseback exploration of the Wild West, as well as her chaste (or so she says) romance with a one-eyed outlaw, “Mountain Jim.” Maria Dahvana Headley says “Bird completely won my heart when she ascends Colorado’s Longs Peak in freezing temperatures, wearing a pair of men’s overshoes, and a ‘Hawaiian riding dress’ made of thin wool, and then actually apologizes for her lack of skill as a mountaineer.”
‘The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class’ by Dean MacCannell
If de Botton’s “The Art of Travel” is the intro course to contrarian travel philosophy, then UC Davis professor Dean MacCannell’s The Tourist is the master class. It is true that his evaluation of the semiotics of tourism will never appeal to the average reader in quite the same way as “Under the Tuscan Sun,” but MacCannell uses tourism as a prism through which to explore an ethnography of modernity and modern values—and he manages to make the text accessible and entertaining regardless of the density of the subject matter. He explores such concepts as the commodification of culture, consumption of tourism markers, staged authenticity and the alienation of labor which forces us abroad in search of deeper meaning.
‘Across Asia on the Cheap’ by Tony Wheeler and Maureen Wheeler
Asia’s overland Hippie Trail was already a well-worn counterculture experience by the time recent business school grad Tony Wheeler and his wife Maureen published Across Asia on the Cheap in 1973. However, the guidebook broke ground by mainstreaming the globalized backpacker counterculture at the polarized height of the Cold War. Moreover, it brought a DIY aesthetic and strong opinions to the travel guidebook genre. The lasting effect was that the book (and its subsequent series) constituted an easy entrée to alternative, independent travel that could be devoured by the masses.