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Books of the Marvels of the World – My Top 21 Best Travel Books of All Time (6-10)

What is great travel literature for me? I explained that here in 1-5, so lets jump right in.

6. Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. Robert Louis Stevenson 

I agree with Junius Maltby (The Pastures of Heaven), Travels with a Donkey is one of the greatest literary works in the English language. Sickly young Stevenson took to the road in the early fall of 1878 on a 12-day, 120-mile solo hiking journey through the glorious Cevennes in southwestern France. The result? His first published literary work. The area was wracked by poverty. The Catholics and Protestants of the area maintained a strict religious ghettoization as memory of the Camisard Rebellion in 1702. This is all noted, however it is Stevenson’s warm, touching appreciation of the landscape that gives this work power. Re-tracing his route is on my bucket list.

7. Travels through Sweden, Finland, and Lapland, to the North Cape, in the Years 1798 and 1799. Giusseppi Acerbi

This is one I can actually say I read in the original. Pouring through the first edition (1802) deep in the bowels of the Finnish national library is one of my finest memories. Turning the 200 year old pages was priceless. Its also just plain good reading. Acerbi traces his route through Sweden and Finland and ultimately to the North Cape. Although Italian, Acerbi composed the work in informative and accessible English. He has a sense of humour and an astounding eye for natural and anthropological detail. I retraced portions of his route for my book Notes for the Aurora Society.

8. The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark

Go right to the originals on this one. Yes, much as been written ABOUT the famous 1804 to 1806 expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast in Oregon (the best perhaps being Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage) but the journals in and of themselves are stunning reading. Surprisingly, the journals were never published – much to Thomas Jefferson’s frustration. They sat in the basement of the American Philosophical Society for nearly 100 years (a fascinating and detailed history of the journals can be found here) before gaining scholarly interest. The writing is accessible and fun. The illustrations fabulous. And the way in which these guys husbanded their team across the continent with little violence and no loss of life is astounding. If you have any interest in the American West before is was raped and pillaged, this is the work to read. The Journals can be accessed here.

9.  Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah (volumes 1 and 2). Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton

Another one of those that inspired me as a kid. Burton was one of the greatest travelers of all times, speaking a total of 29 languages and dialects. He was certainly one of the most brilliant men of the past 500 years. He translated the Kama Sutra and One Thousand and One Nights, searched for the source of the Nile and criticized colonial policy so fiercely his career hit a glass ceiling. Burton made the Hajj in 1853. I can’t help but think that there was more to this journey than meets the eye. It’s my personal opinion that Burton was a devout, if secret, Muslim at the time of the journey. His knowledge of Arabic and the intricacies of Muslim customs amazes, but what it offers the Western reader is an accessibility to the Muslim culture that is hard to get elsewhere. Although a bit stiff in style, the descriptions are fascinating and the cultural minutiae borders on jaw-dropping (and occasionally eye-lid dropping). It’s one of the great adventures.

10. Far Tortuga. Peter Matthiessen

Pure beauty. From the moment the sun rises over the Windward passage, you cant help  but think that Matthiessen attempted to wrap the whole of the cosmic process into his journey. Is this book the eye of God? It is so beautiful, it’s possible. I usually do not like present-tense writing but here it works. In many ways, this book reads like a play and surely the characters are over-exoticised to a point but this is an incredible meditation on both THE SEA and life aboard a schooner.

(11-16 coming next week!)

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