Travel Writing Is Dead

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

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The simplest reason for this catastrophic turn is that it is easier than ever to travel, and not at all easier to write well. In 1955, Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote that travel is "an unavoidable drawback" of acquainting oneself with the world: "There are hours of inaction ... and always the thousand and one dreary tasks which eat away the days to no purpose.... The truths which we seek so far afield only become valid when they have been separated from this dross." The good news for travelers is that these inconveniences are disappearing. The bad news for readers is that those inconveniences are the very stuff that concentrates the mind and transmutes narcissism into something approaching insight.

With travel so easy, the ability to prophesy in a valuable way on the strength of a quick impression looks more and more to be a dying art, like guessing weights at a carnival. When V.S. Naipaul, a deft practitioner of this art on several continents, visited Iran soon after its 1979 revolution, the society was even more closed than it is today, and stolen moments among the mullahs were rare and precious. The effect of his writing is astonishing, even if you object to his scorn for Islam. Unlike contemporary writers, who cast away pearls of time and experience in order to spend more time with themselves, Naipaul treats them with the value they deserve. Few of his scenes last more than a page or two, and yet the details -- a guide's haughtiness, a mullah's laugh, a snippet of government radio -- accrete to reveal the roots of revolution and the likelihood that its principles would be rapidly betrayed. These small elements fit neatly together, with not a whiff of triviality, and the net effect is like looking through a high-powered microscope and enjoying an exquisite but fleeting view.

Nowadays, reports of Qom and other previously arcane hideaways are more numerous, and yet our views far less exquisite. Naipaul had set out to travel among "converted peoples"; we could argue about the sense in which Iranians are "converted" in any meaningful way, but what matters is that the goal -- a deep engagement with Islam -- was profound enough to sustain 300 pages of meditation, humor, and observation. And when Theroux traveled during the 1970s and 80s, he focused intensely on how the human and physical geography of the Earth changed underfoot. The focus was the place, and the insight came from the focus.


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