Wednesday, October 07, 2009

For Parts Unknown

I've always loved some good travel writing, but over the last few years I've become even more obsessive about that particular genre. I've read four good travel books in the last few months.

One of the classic travel narratives is Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book I read many times during my college years and shortly thereafter, but which I haven't revisited since a re-read seven or eight years ago. I didn't become disillusioned with the book or lose my admiration for it (or for its less-read sequel, Lila), but my interests in such philosophical inquiry subsided greatly as I left school and entered the world where I needed to work and learn other things that became more interesting over time. But Pirsig's book has lingered in my mind ever since I read it.

That book uses the framing device of a motorcycle journey from Minnesota to California on which to hang a series of philosophical inquiries into the nature of "Quality", and other issues along the same line, such as "morals". (Lila would likewise use a journey as an umbrella motif for philosophical discussion, this time a boat traveling down the Hudson River.) I am less equipped now than I used to be with regard to evaluating Pirsig's philosophical claims, although I will note that they resonated deeply with me at the time I encountered them and for several years afterward.

Some months ago I spotted a book at Barnes&Noble, called Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Mark Richardson. This work recounts the experiences of the author as he ventures out on a motorcycle of his own to follow the same route, as closely as he can, that Pirsig himself took in the famed earlier book. Richardson's book isn't the same kind of philosophical exploration that the original ZMM is; it's rather a meditation on Pirsig's life and the way he came to write his book, and the way that the solitude of such a journey can lead one to introspection. I found it a fascinating book, although as travel writing in itself it's less interesting than it is in its reference to the book that inspired it. Thus I suspect that the degree to which Zen and Now would be rewarding to a reader would depend greatly on that reader's familiarity with ZMM in the first place. But there's a small danger there, as well, for such readers. Zen and Now is not a new author's exploration of the philosophical notions explored by Pirsig in his two books, and readers familiar with ZMM who come to this book for more will, instead, find themselves traveling land they are already deeply familiar with, alongside someone who isn't.

On the opposite end of a travel book that delves into philosophical territory we have The Ridiculous Race, by Steve Hely and Vali Chandrasekaran, two teevee writers who decide to make a bet between them, with a very valuable boot of Scotch as the prize. The bet it simply this: leaving from Los Angeles, Hely will set out westward and Chandrasekaran will travel eastward, each one traveling around the world, but not using airplanes to do so. The first one to go all the way around the world, arriving back in LA, gets to drink the Scotch. One of the participants secures passage on cargo ships to cross the oceans; the other flies. So much for the rules, so really, there isn't a hell of a lot of suspense in this book. If you're looking for a comedy version of The Amazing Race, with a suspenseful run to the finish, this isn't it. But if you're looking for an entertainingly comic journey around the world, give it a look.

Finally, two books by one of my favorite writers, Bill Bryson: A Walk in the Woods and In a Sunburned Country. Bryson's writing always conveys to me a cheerful sense of curiosity and interest in his subject matter, even when he strays into darker material. These two books are perfect cases in point. A Walk in the Woods chronicles Bryson's attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail ("thru-hiking" is hiking the trail in its entirety), at which he is not entirely successful but more than enthusiastic anyway. In a Sunburned Country is very similar in tone, with just the location changed: in that one, Bryson travels to Australia and goes pretty much everywhere of note in that country. Along the way in both books, Bryson shares with us a great deal of historical and biographical background of the locations he travels in and through, so that as we go, we learn a great deal about the Appalachian Trail and about Australia. That's what should happen in the best travel writing, in my view. (Even if In a Sunburned Country is a bit scary sometimes, as Bryson apparently takes great delight in the fact that Australia is a land that, for the unprepared, can be very lethal and be very quick about being very lethal. Seriously, there are parts of this book in which Bryson almost seems surprised that he didn't die in some extremely painful way during his trip. Heat stroke in the Outback, poisonous plants, getting snatched by a crocodile and disappearing into the water with nary a ripple, shark attack, getting pulled out to sea by rip currents – there's a lot of grisly death here.)


Lynn said...

I love both of the books by Bill Bryson. I read A Walk in the Woods first then The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way (not a travel book but my favorite) and then In a Sunburned Country. I really need to read more of his books.

Buffalopundit said...

Paul Theroux. I loved The Pillars of Hercules.