Peter Hessler’s additions to the World Hum Top 30


Last month, World Hum’s Top 30 Travel Books of all time included Peter Hessler‘s River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, which weighed in at #20 on the list. Curious to know Hessler’s take on the Top 30 — as well as his own suggestions for books that might have been included — I contacted him by email as he toured the U.S. in support of his latest China book, Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present.

This is what Pete told me:

Thanks, and I’m flattered. As for additions ­ I’d definitely mention Blue Highways. And maybe On the Road. I guess that’s technically fiction, but it’s probably more “true” than The Road to Oxiana. I think that Bryson’s The Lost Continent is his best book, better than A Sunburned Country. Maybe The Great Railway Bazaar should be on the list two or three times. I’ve always felt like that’s about the perfect travel book. The Long Walk might belong as well. Capote’s The Muses Are Heard. Out of Africa. Darwin took a big trip. Christopher Columbus left some interesting journals. What’s the policy on works in translation? The fiction/nonfiction issue is also an odd one. It seems wrong that writers like Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, who wrote so much about displacement and movement, aren’t on the list. The Martian Chronicles. Science fiction, at some level, is a type of travel writing, a response to the shrinking world. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a travel book. It’s about a journey, and it’s about that tension between settlement and movement, the sense of frontier and loss, that is at the heart of the American experience.

You know, I’m never certain how I feel about travel writing. I never conceived River Town as a travel book; it’s more about living and working in a place for two years. And although some of my New Yorker stories have been reprinted in travel writing anthologies, pretty much all of them are about a place where I’ve spent a decade. I have a Chinese driver’s license and I pay taxes to the People’s Republic. I live there. Usually I’m not traveling far for my research, and the stories aren’t about my personal experience; they are generally focused on Chinese people. But it seems that anything written about a foreign country automatically falls under the category of travel. Why isn’t Desert Solitaire on lists of great travel books? People generally don’t think of McPhee’s Coming into the Country as a travel book, but they would if Alaska happened to be in Russia.

Sometimes it seems that the idea of a travel book matters more than the book itself. There are certain classics of the genre, like A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, which I don’t really connect with on a literary level. The writing isn’t particularly great; the journey isn’t particularly incredible; and the writer doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t bring much knowledge to his subject. But the book reflects the way that British adventurers and travelers perceived faraway places during that particular period ­ a certain post-Empire, post-war mood. It’s about a moment when the British were coming to terms with a world that was suddenly much bigger and imposing than they had ever imagined during the years of Empire. And because of that quality, the book has acquired a certain extra-literary value. There’s a lot of meaning that isn’t necessarily contained within the pages.

The “genre”, at least as it’s defined, tends to be quite male dominated. I guess that’s partly because our concept of travel writing generally involves adventure and struggle; in many of these books there is a sort of combative relationship with the place. The risk is that it can become a sort of exotica. And another risk is that travel books sometimes don’t age well, because readers often need to connect with that extra-literary dimension. I guess this is why people sometimes wonder if travel writing is dead. I wouldn’t say that, but I sense that the “genre” is becoming more fluid and hard to define. Is Istanbul, by Orhan Pamuk, a travel book? He’s a native of Turkey and he’s lived in the same apartment building for fifty years. But he’s traveled between floors, so maybe it counts.

Posted by | Comments Off on Peter Hessler’s additions to the World Hum Top 30  | June 28, 2006
Category: Travel Writing

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