No. 12: “The Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin

Travel Blog  •  Jim Benning  •  05.21.06 | 2:19 AM ET

To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Published: 1987
Territory covered: Australia
Early on in The Songlines, British-born Bruce Chatwin recalls his childhood as one of “fantastic homelessness.” His most treasured possession was a conch shell his father brought back from the West Indies that he called Mona, which he held to his ear to listen for crashing waves. Perhaps this accounts for the peripatetic life Chatwin would go on to lead, and his journey to explore the traditionally semi-nomadic Australian Aborigines and their “Songlines”—creation myths that “tell of the legendary totemic beings who had wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path…and so singing the world into existence.” With its sharp dialogue and philosophical digressions, Chatwin’s evocative account reads almost like a novel—some people he included in the book, in fact, accused him of playing fast and loose with the facts, writing more fiction than fact. Chatwin is among the most enigmatic of modern travel writers, and one of the few to be recalled in a biography. He died of AIDS-related causes in 1989 at the age of 48. “The Songlines” endures as a travel-lit classic from a writer whose life ended all too soon.

Outtake from The Songlines:

The country away to the east was a flat and treeless waste entirely lacking in cover. Alan kept raising a finger to a solitary bump on the horizon. It was almost dark by the time we reached a small rocky hill, its boulders bursting with the white plumes of spinifex in flower, and a black fuzz of leafless mallee bush. The hill, said Arkady, was the Lizard Ancestor’s resting place.

For more on Bruce Chatwin visit his Wikipedia page and Spike Magazine, and check out Nicholas Shakespeare’s Bruce Chatwin: A Biography.

Jim Benning is the co-editor of World Hum.

3 Comments for No. 12: “The Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin

Ron Mader 05.23.06 | 4:03 PM ET


I can’t believe this book did not crack the top 10. It’s a masterpiece that helped rethink the travel writing genre.

That said, you have me and no doubt many other World Hum readers hooked. This is a great count down. Happy anniversary.

Home Decor Furniture 03.16.07 | 12:20 PM ET

This is a difficult book to describe: it masquerades as a Theroux style travelogue, but is anything but. I love Paul Theroux, but this totally transcends his travel writing. Chatwin starts out describing a trip to the Australian Outback. It starts out pretty conventional, in beautiful descriptive prose…but before too long you realize you are actually reading Chatwin’s brilliant ruminations about the human race as a species, where we came from, and where we are going. The book is NOT really about the Aborigines, though they provide a number of terrific characters, and I suspect someone who really wanted to know more about the actual Songlines could be disappointed by this book. He very clearly sets up his own views against those of many important and popular thinkers. To sum it up, he makes a case that humans are not really an aggressive species at heart, and that evolution has not really programmed the human to fight for power but to defend the tribe. Not every will agree with this, but he makes a wonderful case and the book is beautiful and crystalline and should be read by everyone.

Lisa Thomson 07.26.08 | 4:02 PM ET

Thanks for article. Nice information about really great book and it’s author. It’s truly worth reading.

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