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.

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Seattle-based writer Thomas Kohnstamm is the author of the book Do Travel Writers Go To Hell?, which was published in 2008. He is hard at work on various top secret and vaguely scandalous projects.

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26 Comments for Nine Subversive Travel Books

Snufkin 01.12.10 | 3:50 PM ET

You rule for including Emily Hahn! Seriously, as a lady traveler I get so annoyed anytime I read a bibliography of great travel tomes, it’s always dudes. And if you read this book and learn more about her life/work,  she was an amazing amazing person. My absolute favorite travel writer and one that I keep coming back to for personal inspiration.

Joey 01.12.10 | 5:07 PM ET

“written by monolingual, white Americans”

We’re still beating that stereotype drum? Really?

BB 01.12.10 | 7:08 PM ET

The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost was a great read!

Jim Benning 01.12.10 | 10:03 PM ET

“written by monolingual, white Americans”

That shouldn’t be taken out of context. That was in relation to books about “how weird China is”—in other words, books written by authors who have a limited ability to add insight or understanding because they don’t speak the language. It’s a point worth making, even if you disagree with it. (And it isn’t to say that such books aren’t entertaining.)

Joey 01.13.10 | 12:03 AM ET

Point well taken, Jim. Even in context, that statement reached out and smacked me in the face. It seems unnecessary for the intro to this article, and really we are past the saturation point for statements about those dumb insensitive white guys.

AJ DEE 01.13.10 | 1:55 AM ET

I say go out and learn a language Joey.

Allen MacCannell 01.13.10 | 3:19 AM ET

I support any book written by someone with my name.

I travel to find out if my “home culture” is really the best or not and then I move to the new place if warranted. =)

Ryan 01.13.10 | 10:33 AM ET

I admit, as an observation on the travel-writing genre in general, Kohnstamm has a point.  But as a white guy currently living in China who, despite diligent study, has yet to master the tonal vagaries of the Chinese language, I gotta say I resent the gibe a little.

Besides, you lampoon linguistically impaired white guys, then go on to include Darwin?  I agree that Voyage of the Beagle is a fantastic and seminal book, but its presence on your list sorta contradicts the notion that fluency lends credence to cultural insight.  I know Chuck spoke Spanish, but he didn’t share a language with many of the cultures he (for the most part) accurately and compassionately documented on his voyage ‘round the globe (Tahitians, Aboriginal Australians, Maori, Fuegians, etc.).  So are we really going to stipulate fluency as a prerequisite for travel writing?

Travel writing is defined by a sense of discovery, internal or environmental, usually both.  Discovery comes from expanding or escaping one’s comfort zone, and language is, I would argue, the ultimate comfort zone.  It’s one of the first and most jarring differences you notice in a foreign country, and one of the most difficult to overcome.  So I submit that a language barrier can, in some cases, deepen the sense of discovery in a foreign country. 

Of course, if you’re going to write a travel guide, fluency is obviously necessary. 

Anyway, I won’t write an essay in response to a book-review, and I know Kohnstamm was probably just referring to the less-than-credible content in the Borders Travel section.  But let’s give us white guys a break, huh?  Being an ethnic or linguistic majority doesn’t make one less culturally sensitive or literarily pertinent, any more than knowing the language makes a person automatically insightful.

I do recommend Voyage of the Beagle, though.

Joey 01.13.10 | 5:43 PM ET

Very well said Ryan.

AJ, I speak 3 already, and I’m only part white, but thanks for trying to get a little more mileage out of the stereotype. Besides, a monolingual white guy is ok as long he’s not American, right?

AJ DEE 01.13.10 | 9:32 PM ET

Kudos to you Joey, and I would venture to say that there are fewer monolingual white that are non-American that there are American.

I understand the stereotype that Kohnstamm is trying to portray in the snippet that you quoted, and I find it more humorous than a rip on anyone. 
The whole nature of his list of books are for people who, one could argue, fit a different stereotype.  A stereotype that I would be proud to fit.  Some of the monolingual white dudes that fit the stereotype that seems to hit a nerve with you….....would be very happy to include themselves in that stereotype and I run into them every single day.

Joey, I have no doubt that you could be an interesting, and informed, enlightened, and trilingual white guy (and you could be none of those things), but some people love who they are and what they are and love NOT being certain things.  Seems like the light hearted poke at the stereotypical monolingual white guy really struck a nerve with you and I would be interested to know just WHY it struck a nerve with you if you are so NOT that stereotype.

When I travel to another country, I almost certainly hit the ground learning the language, and have chosen to learn the languages rather than to rely on the language of the international community, English.  To speak the language of the people who’s country you’re visiting, is much more a sign of respect than any guidebook’s recommendation of “taking one’s shoes off when entering a home.” or other petty efforts to not offend.  A genuine interest in what one’s life is like, and who they are as a human being is, in my opinion, the manner in which to show respect and gain a keen insight into a culture.  In gaining insight into other cultures, guess what….......it also opens windows into your own culture and teaches me about myself the more I learn about others.

Just fishing around for some interesting dialog.  And I believe that there are many many monolingual people of many colors who are very wonderful people with much to contribute to the world, who if they were out spending time learning another language, maybe their contributions to the world in other areas would not be so profound.

For instance, many of the aid workers, and search and rescue people who are touching down in Haiti at this very moment, may not speak a word of Haitian Creole.  And if they had devoted prior efforts to learning this language and less time to their profession of being a search and rescue person, maybe they would be a less effective rescue worker.

Anyway, I am defending Kohnstamm, in his use of this term, mostly as a tool of humor, and am really curious as to why it “smacked you in the face”, Joey, as it has.

Joey 01.14.10 | 12:19 AM ET

AJ, There seems to be a pervasive belief in America that ridiculous and often hurtful stereotypes of a perceived majority are totally acceptable. The things that people casually say about, let’s say, white people, men or Christians, would cause rioting in the streets if they were directed at a racial, ethnic or religious minority. For that matter, have you seen the kind of insults that are immediately hurled at anyone from the American south? Go read the comments on any political story on CNN if you need an example. I find any of these stereotypes offensive, even when directed at the majority. I reject the notion that stereotyping the American white male is fine for a cheap laugh. Why does it bother me if I’m trilingual and only part white? Well I look more or less white, and I absolutely hate being painted with that brush as soon as someone lays eyes on me. I hate getting off the plane in another country and getting the “dumb white American” treatment. It happens, especially in Europe. And it would happen a lot less if we didn’t carelessly keep perpetuating the stereotype for the sake of a cheap joke.

thomas kohnstamm 01.14.10 | 2:54 AM ET

Don’t be so sensitive, people. It was not a joke about “dumb white Americans,” but a playful jab at a recently popular sub-genre of travel book that I consider the “isn’t China weird?” category.

I do think it is worth considering that the great majority of travel writers published in the United States are middle class, white and, yes, American (myself included). Moreover, the authors of most of these books don’t speak Chinese (nor do I).

Think about a non-English speaking Chinese writer’s take on the US after spending a few months traveling around, say, Texas—it would probably be riddled with stereotypes and misinformation based on hunches. It’s a little light on real insight and depth… that’s all. That said, I actually think some of the books are well-written and humorous. They are what they are.

And when it comes to the ugly/dumb/loud/whatever American abroad stereotype, I would argue that there are ridiculous assholes from every culture. We don’t have the corner on that market. I also agree that racism can run any which way, including toward someone in an ethnic majority.

We all can still be friends. OK?

-The Guy Who Wrote The Article

Ryan 01.14.10 | 8:59 AM ET

Well said, Thomas.  I liked your book.

Chris 01.14.10 | 12:07 PM ET

You know s—- just got real when the guy who wrote the article has to jump in. :-)

Marcos 01.16.10 | 1:48 PM ET

“Che Guevara is an inspiration for every human being who loves freedom, we will always honor his memory.”—- NELSON MANDELA

... Motorcycle Diaries is one of the my favorite books.

Chris 01.17.10 | 10:48 PM ET

Marcos, have you seen the Motorcycle Diaries film? Is it any good?

Scott Hartman 01.19.10 | 12:52 PM ET

Just want to leap frog back to the top, to Snufkin . . . in my mind two of the most subversive travelers EVER, their subversion bordering on Anarchy, were women - Isabelle Eberhardt and Alexandra David-Neel.  To go into the parts of the world that they did (the Middle East and Tibet) when they did is Epic by any chormosomal standard, then or now.

Snufkin 01.20.10 | 1:58 AM ET

RE: Scott Hartman, YES! That is what I’m talking about. It’s so boring to read an article (like the November 2009 issue of Outside) where it’s the same old blah blah Shackleford, Chatwin, Mallory, {insert whatever latest book Jon Krakauer has out.}.

Scott Hartman 01.20.10 | 9:36 AM ET

Snufkin - I think what separates the women I mentioned from some of the men that you did, is that what David-Neel and Eberhardt did, what their “summit” was, was cultural, while the men “simply” did what had been done before (as in Krakauer’s story of Everest), or, was “merely” physical.
What those women did simply cannot be done again, as that world is gone.
At the same time I’m not going to deny what Krakauer and Chatwin (one of my personal favorites) did.  As a writer I admire what Krakauer did.  HIs book on Everest I could hardly put down once I picked it up; and for a writer, there is something in creating that kind of book.  And as for Chatwin, he was simply a groundbreaker.  He couldn’t be pegged as a writer, he touched and tweaked, he blurred the lines between many genres - from fiction to travel writing, and a travel writer is how he least wanted to be known.

Mbogo 01.22.10 | 11:46 AM ET

Motorcycle Diaries, is probably one of the 5 best movies I’ve ever SEEN :o)

Chris 01.22.10 | 7:39 PM ET

It’s now on my Netflix list Mbogo

Bryan 01.24.10 | 2:30 AM ET

Across Asia on the Cheap sounds like an interesting read. We are thinking have having an Asian adventure next so this might some in handy.

African Sands 01.29.10 | 10:40 AM ET

I enjoyed ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara I found it very interesting, and the Motorcycle Diaries film - I thought this was very well directed.

Chauffeurlinks 02.09.10 | 1:38 PM ET

Same here, I have also liked and enjoyed The Motorcycle Diaries’ by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and this this best directed and interested.

AriannaSunshine 02.18.10 | 9:46 PM ET

Motorcycle Diaries is my favorite book. This summer I plan on taking my own journey by motorcycle from Mexico City to Panama. :o)

Worldwide travel recommendations 02.19.10 | 11:01 PM ET

That’s a great list! It’s also interesting to see what the cover of Tony Wheeler’s first book looked like!

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