William H.H. Murray's guidebook to the Adirondacks “kindled a thousand camp fires and taught a thousand pens how to write of nature,” inspiring droves of American city-dwellers to venture into the wild and starting a back-to-nature movement that endures to this day. Of course, Murray's slender volume was part of a great literary tradition. For more than two millennia, travel books have had enormous influence on the way we have approached the world, transforming once-obscure areas into wildly popular destinations.
A detailed selection would fill a library. So what follows is a brazenly opinionated short-list of travel classics—some notorious, some barely remembered—that have inspired armchair travelers to venture out of their comfort zone and hit the road.
1. Herodotus, Histories (c.440 BC)
Homer's Odyssey is often referred to as the first travel narrative, creating the archetypal story of a lone wanderer, Odysseus, on a voyage filled with mythic perils, from terrifying monsters like the Cyclops to seductive nymphs and ravishing sorceresses. As may be. But the first real “travel writer,” as we would understand the term today, was the ancient Greek author Herodotus, who journeyed all over the eastern Mediterranean to research his monumental Histories. His vivid account of ancient Egypt, in particular, created an enduring image of that exotic land, as he “does the sights” from the pyramids to Luxor, even dealing with such classic travel tribulations as pushy guides and greedy souvenir vendors. His work inspired legions of other ancient travelers to explore this magical, haunted land, creating a fascination that reemerged during the Victorian age and remains with us today. In fact, Herodotus qualifies not just as the Father of History, but the Father of Cultural Travel itself, revealing to the ancient Greeks—who rarely deemed a foreign society worthy of interest—the rewards of exploring a distant, alien world.
2. Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo (c.1300)
When the 13th-century Venetian merchant Marco Polo returned home after two decades wandering China, Persia and Indonesia, the stories he and his two brothers told were dismissed as outright fiction—until (legend goes) the trio sliced open the hems of their garments, and hundreds of gems poured to the ground in a glittering cascade. Still, Polo's adventure might have remained all but unknown to posterity if an accident had not allowed him to overcome his writer's block: Imprisoned by the Genoans in 1298 after a naval battle, he used his enforced leisure time to dictate his memoirs to his cellmate, the romance writer Rustichello da Pisa. The resulting volume, filled with marvelous observations about Chinese cities and customs and encounters with the potentate Kublai Khan (and including, admittedly, some outrageous exaggerations), has been a bestseller ever since, and indelibly defined the Western view of the Orient. There is evidence that Polo intended his book to be a practical guide for future merchants to follow his path. The vision of fabulous Chinese wealth certainly inspired one eager and adventurous reader, fellow Italian Christopher Columbus, to seek a new ocean route to the Orient. (Of course, Islamic scholars will point out that the 14th-century explorer Ibn Battuta traveled three times as far as Polo around Africa, Asia and China, but his monumental work Rihla, “The Journey,” remained little known in the West until the mid-19th century).
3. Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768)
When the author of Tristram Shandy penned this extraordinary autobiographical novel, the Grand Tour of Europe as a rite of passage was in full swing. Wealthy young British aristocrats (almost invariably male), took educational expeditions to the great cultural sites of Paris, Venice, Rome and Naples, seeking out the classical sites and Renaissance artworks in the company of an erudite “bear leader,” or tour guide. Sterne's rollicking book suddenly turned the sober Grand Tour principle on its head. The narrator deliberately avoids all the great monuments and cathedrals, and instead embarks on a personal voyage, to meet unusual people, seeking out new and spontaneous experiences: (“'tis a quiet journey of the heart in pursuit of NATURE, and those affections which arise out of her, which make us love each other—and the world, better than we do.”) His meandering journey across France and Italy is filled with amusing encounters, often of an amorous nature (involving assorted chamber maids and having to share rooms in inns with member of the opposite sex), which prefigures the Romantic era's vision of travel as a journey of self-discovery. Even today, most “true travelers” pride themselves on finding vivid and unique experiences, rather than generic tourist snapshots or lazy escapes.
4. Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1869)
Writers of the Gilded Age (a term Mark Twain incidentally coined) produced thousands of earnest and tedious travel books, a tendency that Twain deftly deflated with Innocents Abroad. Sent as a journalist on a group cruise tour to see the great sights of Europe and the Holy Land, Twain filed a series of hilarious columns to the Alta California newspaper that he later reworked into this classic work. With its timely, self-deprecating humor, it touched a deep chord, lampooning the naïveté of his fellow Americans (“The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad”) and the modest indignities of exploring the sophisticated Old World (“In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”) The result was to embolden many more of his fellow countrymen to fearlessly cross the pond and immerse themselves in Europe, and, hardly less importantly, to begin a new style of comic travel writing that echoes today through hugely popular modern authors such as Bill Bryson. Today, Innocents Abroad is one of the few 19th-century travel books that is still read eagerly for pleasure. (Its perfect companion is, of course, Roughing It, Twain's account of his misspent youth as a miner in the wild American West).