In acknowledgement of Michigan’s summer reading programs’ theme “World Culture and Travel”, I’m finally getting around to doing a blog post on travel memoirs. Travel memoirs are, of course, very different from travel guides; authors of travel guides, such as Rick Steves, need to convince people to actually go to the places they describe, whether on a cruise down the Danube or castles in Switzerland, in addition to selling the books themselves. As a result, the books need to be not only factual, listing businesses travelers will need to use such as hotels, restaurants and methods of transit, but also be somewhat complimentary about the places. Not even the Let’s Go guides are going to say something like “The architecture in X place is gorgeous but it’s obscured to the second floor with graffiti and don’t even think of coming here after dusk, ’cause you’ll be mugged.” Travel memoirs can be as personal and opinionated as the author wishes, and readers may need to take the writing with a grain of salt or two, as the authors’ descriptions may not be accurate or complete as they bring their own bias to the writing. This doesn’t mean they can’t be enjoyable to read–I still love Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I, but under no circumstances should it be considered a realistic description of farm life in Depression-era rural Washington.
Specifically, I’d like to compare Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux. (Disclaimer: as with the memoirs themselves, this is largely a description of the authors writing styles, based on my own personal opinion!) On the plus side, both authors have written a number of books about travelling, over a fairly long time span; there is a lot for avid readers to get through before they run out of summer, and it’s always interesting (for me) to see how the author’s writing style changes. Between them, the two authors have covered most of the world: Western and Eastern Europe, Soviet Union, China and South Asia, North and South America, Australia and the South Pacific, so it’s possible to travel around the world from your armchair. The difference in their writing styles may be a plus or a minus, depending on why you’re reading them.
Theroux is the older of the two writers by about ten years, and the more prolific author overall combining fiction and nonfiction. His first travel book was The Great Railway Bazaar, written in 1975, which describes his four month journey through Europe, Asia and looping back through the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Railroad; he repeated this trip in part 30 years later in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. His later books follow this same basic pattern of travelling through a large area of the world, although they do not always involve primarily train travel1. Theroux’s writing style is the more complex of the two, and more literately descriptive; perhaps this comes from his origins as a novelist as opposed to Bryson’s newspaper background. He does comes across as somewhat misanthropic in his books; he doesn’t seem to like most of the people he meets nor does he appear to enjoy the act of travelling very much2. Admittedly, he’s not always choosing the most luxurious or even comfortable methods of travel or places to stay, but one might expect someone who does so much travel to at least get a modicum of enjoyment out of the mere act of travelling. That said, he’s brilliant at describing the places he’s seen and the people he’s met, in a dismissive sardonic way, so I’ve always enjoyed sitting comfortably at home with a glass of iced tea and reading about all the unpleasant situations he’s been through.
Bryson’s writing style is distinctly breezier in tone, with less background description, and as a result, I’ve found his books to read much faster than Theroux’s. Beach reading, if you will. He can be mocking, but this seems to be directed at himself as much as those around him; Theroux never really seems to acknowledge that his perception of those around him is just that: his own bias based on his own experience. The wide eyed “golly, gee whiz” air I’ve noticed in Bryson’s work is amusing in small amounts, but can be wearing; alternating the two authors would probably refresh reader’s mental palate.
1a bit difficult in Oceana, obviously, but also in Africa for different reasons
2to the point that if I enjoyed travel as little as he seems to, I’d have packed in the non-fiction writing gig and run off to become a plumber, if I couldn’t support myself with fiction.