The too-narrowly defined travel genre?


Masaya National Park, Nicaragua

Some things in life frustrate me. Take, for instance, how small the travel sections of most bookstores are, and how narrowly the genre is defined.

I’m aware that narrow definitions are helpful and even necessary, not least when organizing a bookstore. But there’s a danger in this too, especially when we let these sometimes rigid categorizations take too firm a root in our minds. Travel, after all, isn’t just the act of transporting ourselves bodily from one geographic point to another; it also includes the movement of our emotions, spirit, and thought. One who has not learned to move well internally may not be so well equipped to move externally.

One of my favorite books is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It is a literary classic, not a travel book, but yet—well, I’m going to call it a travel book anyway. Others can provide a good summary of the work, but suffice it to say that Kurt Vonnegut had one of his characters in Slaughterhouse-Five say, “everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov.

One of my first published pieces in the Christian Science Monitor revolved around me taking the book to Egypt and reading it there. I also have potent memories of reading a few pages while sitting in a hostel in Jerusalem, hours after walking past the wreckage of a suicide bombing that happened earlier in the day. Even though I no longer carry the book with me now, I still, when least expected, recall certain passages. In the photo above, for example, taken at Masaya Volcano National Park in Nicaragua, I had just finished a long, sweltering hike and was taking a break on a crater’s rim. I saw these vultures and thought of the following:

My brother, a dying youth, asked the birds to forgive him. That may sound absurd, but when you think of it, it makes sense. For everything is like the ocean, all things flow and are indirectly linked together, and if you push here, something will move at the other end of the world. It may be madness to beg the birds for forgiveness, but things would be easier for the birds, for the child, and for every animal if you were nobler than you are—yes, they would be easier, even if only by a little. Understand that everything is like the ocean. Then, consumed by eternal love, you will pray to the birds, too. In a state of fervor you will pray them to forgive you your sins. And you must treasure that fervor, absurd though it may seem to others.

Travel is a broad and beautiful beast, physical and inward, and the bookstore’s travel section can only contain it in part. So travel deeply, to other shelves and distant shores, and don’t at all be afraid if others sometimes think you absurd!

Posted by | Comments (2)  | March 4, 2010
Category: Images from the road, Travel Writing

2 Responses to “The too-narrowly defined travel genre?”

  1. Adam Says:

    This is so true. And Brothers Karamazov has been on my reading list for years. You’ve absolutely convinced me to finally buy a copy this weekend. Thanks!

  2. Joel Carillet Says:

    Glad you’re going to get the book, Adam. It’s a comittment given its length, but it’s worth it! Thanks for leaving the comment.