Nine Subversive Travel Books

Travel Books: Thomas Kohnstamm celebrates books that really rocked the boat

‘The Voyage of the Beagle’ by Charles Darwin

It’s hard to top the cultural impact and backlash created by Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and its fundamental challenge to religious belief systems. True, “On the Origin of Species” is a science book, but it would not have been possible without Darwin’s earlier five-year voyage around the Southern Hemisphere on the HMS Beagle, which led to his travel memoir, The Voyage of the Beagle. The book pondered mysteries of the species that Darwin encountered in distant lands and raised many questions that he only fulfilled in “On the Origin of Species.” Later editions of “The Voyage of the Beagle” were re-worded to incorporate evolutionary insight into his original travels.

‘The Worst Journey in the World’ by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

A survivor of Robert Falcon Scott’s tragic 1910-1913 Antarctic exploration, Cherry-Garrard went on to write one of the great adventure travel books. But a quick glance at the title should give the reader a sense that this is not your typical celebration of derring-do. Cherry-Garrard takes the romanticism out of the grand notion of British exploration but simultaneously unleashes a scathing critique of life back home. Travel writer and editor Hunter Slaton notes how the book values lonesome, wretched Antarctic adventure—frostbitten fingers and all—over a predictable, comfortable life back in England when Cherry-Garrard writes: “For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal.”

‘The Travels of Marco Polo’ by Marco Polo and Rustichello da Pisa

OK, so maybe Marco Polo didn’t actually become the right-hand-man of Kublai Khan. Maybe he never met Kublai Khan at all. And, yes, the most famous Venetian of all time didn’t write the book—that was left to a ghostwriter and cellmate, Rustichello da Pisa, who probably interjected additional fictional elements (after all, da Pisa was a romance writer who had already knocked out a King Arthur book). Fact checking was piss poor in the 13th Century, so we’ll never really know the truth. All of that aside, few books inspired so many Europeans to seek fortune and adventure outside of Europe and, thereby, alter the world. One person known to have been heavily influenced by The Travels of Marco Polo was a Genoese guy named Columbus.

‘Nobody Said Not to Go—The Life, Loves, and Adventures of Emily Hahn’ by Ken Cuthbertson

Unaccompanied female travelers were still a rarity in America by the 1920s—and so Emily Hahn dressed as a boy on a cross-country car trip. By 1948, Hahn had moved to the Belgian Congo, crossed Central Africa on foot, entered into a turbulent affair with a Chinese poet in Shanghai, and had two children with Britain’s chief spy in Hong Kong. Top that in 2010, Bear Grylls. This biography is an engaging introduction to a complicated and strikingly progressive woman. Follow it up with some of Hahn’s own work: 52 books and more than 180 New Yorker articles.

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… 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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