Traveling by Book

“A travel writer knows that a reader isn’t interested in tourism” – Jorge Carrión

Though I am starting to give serious thought (like the statuesque Dante) about traveling outside the tri-county area, I remain for the time being tethered to home. Undeterred, I recently finished reading two short books that have taken me to places around the country and the globe, but with two different approaches.

American Places

Zinsser2_hires_largeIt does not really matter whether or not you have visited the points of interest in William Zinsser’s  American Places: A Writer’s Pilgrimage to Sixteen of This Country’s Most Visited and Cherished Sites (1992, 2007). Zinsser makes it work either way. It has been decades since I visited Mark Twain’s hometown and Zinsser’s descriptions reminded me that Hannibal wasn’t much more than Tom Sawyer’s House, Becky Thatcher’s House and a roadside view of Jackson Island on the mighty Mississippi.  And yes, Zinsser's overall impression of The Alamo was the same as mine: The Alamo is a lot tinier than you would ever expect. (The reason? We grew up seeing it on big movie screens.)

And if you are concerned that it's been nearly 30 years since its original publication, don't worry. American Places isn’t a tour guidebook anyway. He examines the fundamentals of why places in our nation’s history continually resonate with us. 

Two things that keep the book fresh is that Zinsser interviews National Park Rangers and gift shop employees alike and purposely avoids talking to tourists and official representatives. This allows him to get the insights of those who are there every day and provide a fair amount of background history on the site itself (e.g. Mount Vernon had fallen into serious disrepair just before The Civil War and later during the war both armies agreed not to battle there, treating it as a demilitarized zone).

Also, this not just a compilation of independent pieces published elsewhere, Zinsser builds on the narrative of his trip and circles back on previous stops to draw comparisons between the sites.

As the author of the mega bestseller On Writing Well (1976), Zinsser has set high expectations for tight, evocative prose and he does not disappoint. And as a bonus, there are many passages that have a subtle humor to them. For example,  in this excerpt from the Alamo chapter Zinsser watches the tourists buying  gift items and lists the items alphabetically: ashtrays, belts, bookmarks, books, buckles, bumper stickers…tote bags, toy guns, and yo-yos. “I was impressed that one small martial shrine could lend its imagery to such a multitude of domestic uses,” he writes. “The items all appeared to be of a certain quality above kitsch, and I walked around the display counters and racks taking notes. As I was finishing, a very tall security guard accosted me and told me to ‘step outside.’ I followed him out the door, my heartbeat racing ( I am about to be arrested at the Alamo!)…”

Unamerican Places

In sharp contrast in style and content, Jose Carriόn’s Against Amazon and Other Essays (2019) acts a guide to book shops and book people in London, Korea, Argentina, Tokyo, Mexico City, Capri and his home country of Spain. Carriόn made this blog’s Best Books Read in 2018 with his 2017 effort —Bookshops: A Reader’s History. (His Certificate of Merit is still waiting to be picked up at the blog offices, sigh.)

His anti-Amazon title essay includes a seven-part manifesto why we should not mindlessly bow to the will of the corporate giant when we buy our books. 

Carrión also interviews The History of Reading ’s Alberto Manguel who now is the director of the National Library of Argentina. Manguel tells the story of every booklover’s nightmare— how he was forced to dismantle his 40,000 book library and move it from France to Montreal.

As Carrión takes you to various book shops and booksellers throughout the globe he reminds readers the value of physicality of the best bookshops inhabited by booksellers who can tell you what is on the shelves without checking their computer. In contrast to Zinsser who is diligent in connecting the dots, Carriόn will refer to many favorite titles and bookshops, many of which  you have not heard of, much less visited. But do not be discouraged, just ride his passion.

Besides being “travel books not for tourists” another of commonality of these two books is the author Jorge Luis Borges. The Argentinian-born Borges, known for his writings about labyrinthic book places, figures in one of Zinsser’s American PlacesHannibal, Missouri the boyhood home of Mark Twain.

According to Zinsser, in 1982, the aging, blind Borges accepted an invitation to give a lecture at Washington University in St. Louis on the condition that he could visit firsthand the “the source of the author’s strength.”  Zinsser tells the story of the museum curator that accompanied Borges:

“I took him down Front Street and led him across the cinders where some cobblestones go down to the Mississippi. He squatted to where he could reach the river, and he leaned over and let the water run through his hands. Then he said, ‘Now my journey is complete.’”

Hannibal_1964 (2)Here's our American family at Tom Sawyer's house. From the left is my brother Neil, my sister Kay,  our Dad, (wearing his "vacation tie" ) and your narrator. Mom is taking the photo. No Borges photobombing.


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Books Read in 2022

  • John Dos Passos: The 42nd Parallel (1930)
  • Merlin Sheldrake: Entangled Life: How Fungi Shape World, etc. etc. (2020)
  • Mario Vargas Llosa: Death in the Andes (1993)
  • Ron Chernow: Grant (2017)
  • Francis Spufford: Light Perpetual (2021)
  • Craig LeHoullier: Epic Tomatoes (2015)
  • Saul Griffith: Electrify: An Optimist's Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future (2021)
  • Laurence Sterne: The Life of Tristam Shandy Gentleman (1759)
  • Laurie Blauner: I Was One of My Memories (2021)
  • Lee Smith: Blue Motel, a Novella (2020)
  • Josef Skvorecky : The Bass Saxaphone: Two Novellas (1977)
  • Michael Pereira: Mountains and A Shore: A Journey Through Southern Turkey (1966,2015)
  • Norman Lock: The Boy in His WInter: An American Novel (2014)
  • Tatiana Schlossberg: Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don't Know You Have (2019)
  • Pankaj Mishra: Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017)
  • Donald Honig: Baseball When the Grass Was Real (1975)
  • Ayana Elizabeth Johnson & Katherine K. Wilkinson (ed.): All We Can Save: Truth, Courage and Solutions for the Climate Crisis (2021)
The book that started it all.
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