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Travel Books - Travel Writing Tribe

When I was young, my father had a subscription to National Geographic magazine, and so, like George Bailey in It's A Wonderful Life, this was my first introduction to the wider world and my impetus to leave my (to me) boring home and explore. It was only later, in university, that I discovered that there were books about travel, and once discovered, this became my favourite section of the library.

Tim Hannigan also discovered travel books as a young man. In his case, he not only became a fan of the genre but desired to write travel books of his own. It was only later that he started to have misgivings about the genre. Is travel writing dying as a genre, he wondered? Is it just an extension of colonialism? Is it primarily a type of book written by rich white men who attended Eton and Oxford? Is it even ethical? He addresses all of these questions in a very engaging and entertaining manner in The Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre.

Rather than take a dry academic approach, Hannigan decides to write his book as a series of travel essays. In each chapter, he goes somewhere--Edinburgh, Monaco, Eton, Greece, Cornwall, Dublin--and explores a different topic. In some chapters, he interviews new and established writers, such as Dervla Murphy, Colin Thubron, Nick Danziger, William Dalrymple, Samanth Subramanian and Monisa Rajesh--asking them hard questions. In other chapters, he explores the classic writings of dead authors like Wilfred Thesiger, Patrick Leigh Fermor, or Bruce Chatwin, who have become problematic either because of their attitudes to the places they described or their tendency to make things up. Hannigan also talks to academics who study travel writing, most of whom are highly critical of it, some of whom seem to hate it, and who have developed a highly specialized vocabulary to describe travel writing: "travellee" (the person described by the traveller), "contact zone" (the space where people from two cultures meet), "colonialist discourse" (the idea the places are described using preconceived colonial attitudes), and "belatedness" (the idea that the traveller comes to a place looking for an authentic experience rooted in the past). Hannigan also interviews travellers who read travel literature and gets some surprising responses to his questions about such things as authorial presence in the narrative, fabricating scenes, creating composite characters and what exactly is the "truth."

In many chapters, Hannigan adapts his method of writing to the topic under discussion, matching his style to the author he is investigating. For example, driving home after interviewing Rory MacLean, who admitted to inventing the scene in Stalin's Nose where a pig falls out of tree and kills his uncle, Hannigan stops at the side of the road at dusk to view a herd of pigs, one of whom winks at him, "rises onto its hind legs with balletic grace, gives its suspended fore-trotters a sudden shimmy, and lifts clear of the ground like rising moon." After interviewing Sara Wheeler and touching on the topics of sex and gender in travel writing, he stops at the Sigmund Freud Museum and left alone for a moment in the great psychiatrist's waiting room, decides to try the famous divan. Suddenly Freud himself appears and begins to question Hannigan, revealing his insecurities and chiding him, "You have been a very silly boy, haven't you?"

"I suppose I have," answers Hannigan.

If you enjoy reading travel books, as I do, then you will love The Travel Writing Tribe. It delivers insight in a thoughtful manner that is both entertaining and informative, and that will add depth to your reading. In the end, Hannigan presents an even-handed review of the travel writing genre that leaves room for hope that, while the genre might evolve, it will continue to thrive.


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