The world may be getting smaller, but that doesn't mean it's any less varied, surprising, or exotic--as is made evident by the 25 essays collected in the inaugural edition of the Best American Travel Writing series. In search of America's sharpest, most original, and often, most curious travel writers, editor Bill Bryson and series editor Jason Wilson sifted through hundreds of stories. What the resulting collection demonstrates is that, as Wilson writes, travel stories matter:
Having a travel writer report on particular things, small things, the specific ways in which people act and interact, is perhaps our best way of getting beyond the clichés that we tell each other about different places and cultures, and about ourselves.
And, as Bryson notes, many of the freshest voices are being drawn to foreign subjects far beyond the trampled paths of tourism. Within these pages, they chart the world from Nantucket to Zanzibar, the Atlas Mountains of Morocco to Australia's Cape York Peninsula with originality and keen observation. Some even go where none would follow: drawn by the allure of danger zones, Patrick Symmes rides a dirt bike to "perhaps the most forbidden city in the world" in search of the Khmer Rouge. Tim Cahill describes his own personal journey in hell--11 long days on a barge on the Ubangi River with 3,000 people packed so close together it's impossible to move without apologizing. (Fortunately, he's befriended by a man named God who is always in the know.)
Distance is not a prerequisite for travel writing, though humor is invaluable, as Bill Buford shows in his attempt to do what you just don't do--spend the night in Central Park. When Dave Eggers discovers hitchhiking is what makes Cuba move, it becomes the point of his trip to "pick up and move people, from here to there." Tongue in cheek, he declares, "So easy to change the quality, the very direction, of Cubans' lives!" Then again, sometimes humor is just not appropriate, particularly if you've been kidnapped by Ugandan rebels (as was Mark Ross) or you're trying to help the Dalai Lama choose the next Panchen Lama without jeopardizing lives (as did Isabel Hilton). In any case, it's all happening here--golf in Greenland, cheese smuggling from France, even a ride with the Toughest Truck Driver in the World. This collection proves that travel writing is a genre whose time has come. --Lesley Reed
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