Why ‘travel writing’ can cease to exist

I have a confession: I haven’t read a travel book in years.

I’ll dip in. But I usually can’t get myself enthused enough to finish. For a while, I wondered if something was wrong with me. I’ve worked in travel journalism for 13 years. Why do I get bored by travel writing?

It may say something about my poor introspection, but it took many years to figure it out.

For me, travel is about the place, not someone’s reaction to it. I would rather cut out the middle-man.

Travel isn’t just about vacations. It’s a study of history, food, people and nature. That’s why it’s inexhaustible.

So although I don’t read travel books, I am voracious about non-fiction books. Books about the history of salt, about Reconstruction, about a guy who grew up in Bombay, about the banana trade, about the heyday of silent movies in Hollywood. I always have at least 8 to 10 in the dugout, waiting for their turn to step up and knock me into their world.

All are the stories of other places. Isn’t that the essence of travel?

The concept of “travel writing” is so limiting. Far fewer people want to read about the act of travel (the revenue figures are cratering) but reading about the world has never gone out of style. The act of travel is a personal process, and it often involves details (taxicabs, tickets, uncomfortable beds) that obstruct actual learning. If you drop the “travel” and are just a “writer,” you haven’t lost a yard of territory. You are still covering the whole planet.

I increasingly doubt bookstores need a Travel section at all. Excepting guides, most of the titles could be integrated into other sections, and in stores such as Daunt Books in London, they are. The Travel section is a ghetto that doesn’t need to exist unless it’s to provide a little-trafficked spot to shelve an author’s self-satisfied humblebrag at having scaled K2 or incite jealous fantasies about how to Leave It All Behind. Many publishers, citing the ongoing steep drop in travel book sales, would rather not categorize their new non-guidebook titles as “travel” at all, choosing to publish as “current events,” “history,” or something else with actual sales potential.

Oh, many personal narrative writers are simply brilliant at what they do, and there’s a place for that kind of self-centered storytelling, of course. Just not within my attention span.

Non-fiction can transport me the way a good journey does — which is to say tantalizingly, not fully, but enough to keep me excited about life. It can transform my vision. It can make me want to get moving.

Like travel does.

Like acting does for actors. Travel can be like acting, too; each new destination is another chance to absorb other people’s realities, the way an actor might grasp a character.

The world has more facets than can ever be admired, and every story goes deeper with the advance of time. When you get bored of exploring space, you can always dig into the past.

Every new fact is a journey unto itself that can lead you away the familiar and yet teach you about yourself.

So I do not read travel books. I am too busy learning about the world.

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.” —Joseph Campbell

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas, Florida

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas, Florida


2 Responses to “Why ‘travel writing’ can cease to exist”

  1. Bear_Caldwell

    Jason…interesting take. Much like you, I’m all about the history, food, people and nature. I’ve spent the last 5 weeks in Nigeria diving into local communities and sharing the stories of people who live without a roof over their head and kids who were photographed for the very first time in their lives. It’s amazing to share in that vice reading about it in a travel book or living vicariously through the life of someone else and their writings. However, do you also mean guidebooks as in you don’t check out the ins and outs of a place before traveling? I’d like to know your take and thoughts on that side of travel…guidebooks and their impact on destinations. Good or bad? Thanks for your words and I hope to see you on my blog sometime.

    • Jason Cochran

      Oh, no, as an author of several guidebooks, I think they’re vital. In fact, I deplore the fact they are being eliminated so hastily by corporations that would rather push everyone to go digital, as if we are all wealthy business travelers. Your experiences in Nigeria are a perfect example — I don’t know about you, but I would never yank out an iPad guide to Nigeria (even if it existed, even if companies deemed it profitable enough to do) if I was in a village where children had never even been photographed before. Electronic disparity exists; I wrote about it in my post The Fatal Flaws of Flashpacking. But I do think that guidebooks shouldn’t have to share the same mental space as “travel writing.” It’s reductive to clump narrative non-fiction books with reference books. Leave the guidebook references in their own section, the way the dictionaries have their own rack, but let’s look at “travel writing” more broadly as simply “writing” and integrate it by topic wherever it’s applicable.

      Do guidebooks have a positive or negative impact? I think the answer has many angles. They usually have a positive effect on the reader because they lead them onward to discovery and connection. Their effect on the destination, though, depends mostly on the ability of the locals to deal with coverage. When hotels or restaurants get lazy after receiving the guaranteed business of the guidebook, that’s not the book’s fault, but the manager’s. It becomes a fault of the book when the writer doesn’t amend the declining standards in the next edition, which often happens since payment is plummeting and so few writers can afford to do repeat research year after year. But no, I do not think that guidebooks are inherently destructive. We will never be able to count the lives that have been positively transformed on both sides, reader and subject.

      By the way, Bear, I like your new blog.