The Allure of Travel Writing

Jan Morris, one of the world’s leading travel writers, introduces six essays and describes the challenges of modern travel writing

Jan Morris
Colin McPherson / Corbis

Now that nearly everyone has been nearly everywhere, it might be thought that travel writers have lost their purpose. In a way they have. Only the most spectacularly perilous journey is nowadays worth writing a book about, and a public almost surfeited with TV travelogues rarely needs to be told what foreign parts look like.

Ah, but what they feel like is something else, and in a profounder sense the best travel writers are not really writing about travel at all. They are recording the effects of places or movements upon their own particular temperaments—recording the experience rather than the event, as they might make literary use of a love affair, an enigma or a tragedy.

So it is with the six practitioners represented in this special issue—whose destinations were chosen by their answer to a single question: Where in the world would you like to go? Talk about dream assignments.

When in 1922 the novelist E.M. Forster set out to write a guidebook to the Egyptian city of Alexandria, his most memorable advice was "to wander aimlessly about." In that one famous phrase, he was admitting that the subjective means more than the objective.

I do not doubt that wandering aimlessly was part of the technique of all six of the writers in this issue; most of them are even recalling a very first travel experience. Paul Theroux, who has famously quartered the world in his time, here makes his inaugural drive from coast to coast in his American homeland. Geoff Ward grew up in India but had never traveled to Punjab, and he describes for us his sensations with the wisdom of an old hand and the excitement of a newcomer. When we hear the name of Frances Mayes we instantly think of Tuscany, but here she makes a journey across the very different landscapes of Poland. Susan Orlean looks at Morocco through the unlikely prism of a donkey's personality. Caroline Alexander, though she had been to Jamaica, chooses to write about marvelous gardens there that are new to her, and Francine Prose explores rural Japan as the most delighted and appreciative of tourists.

I would guess they approached their tasks, like Forster in Alexandria, open to all suggestions, all antennas out: but it is their technique that is aimless, not their purpose. They know exactly what they are doing, and the result is something far more complex and profound than mere wandering.

First impressions are not always best—certainly not always the most accurate. Responses are often mellower, less gushing, less bigoted, more balanced, upon a return visit. Some of the most potent evocations of places are written by people who have known them for years, so that observer and observed, so to speak, become more intricately enmeshed. But there is no denying extra freshness, extra sparkle, to a seasoned observer's first impressions. Like us, they have doubtless sniffed by proxy the cherry blossoms of Japan. But until now they have not known what those places feel like, have not matched their realities with their own imaginations.

This is not to say that these writers are exploring the treacherous creative quagmire called fiction. It is not invention that you will find in these pages, but something subtler: the alliance of knowledge and sensation, nature and intellect, sight and interpretation, instinct and logic. It is more real than fiction, but more genuine than mere fact, too. Susan Orlean is not just thinking about donkeyness, she is exploring the relationship between animal and human in North Africa. In Japan, Francine Prose is wondering why some travelers find themselves so fully at home in other people's homelands. And Geoff Ward ends his article on Punjab with the Sikh thought that all Punjabis—"and, by extension, all mankind"—are one.

Our writers are certainly not telling us what we shall see or feel ourselves, if ever we go to the parts they write about, and it is no good complaining that our own responses were different, if we happen to have been there already. For they are other minds that we are traveling with here, other sensibilities, and as any philosopher knows, the truth about anything is nobody's monopoly—not least, the truth about a place.

Jan Morris has written some 40 books on history and travel.

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