There was a time when I would have paid a hundred dollars for even a ratty copy of Sir Francis Galton’s The Art of Travel, or Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries (1872). This book was a vade mecum for Victorian explorers, such as Sir Richard Francis Burton, whose works I collect and love to read. Other books that Burton and his fellow Victorian explorers took with them on their jaunts into the wild places of the world are Randolph Barnes Marcy’s The Prairie Traveler: The 1859 Handbook for Westbound Pioneers (Burton himself edited later editions) and Harriet Martineau’s How to Observe: Morals and Manners (1838).
Now how much do you suppose these rare titles would cost you today? Remember, these books (even the one on the Prairies of North America) were taken into the darkest parts of Africa and South America. According to Monte Reel’s article entitled “How to Explore Like a Real Victorian Adventurer,” reprinted in The Best American Travel Writing 2012, the answer is Zero. Zip. Nil. Provided, of course, you have a Kindle e-reader.
If you do, you can easily put together a library of works which are no longer under copyright for nothing or next to nothing.
Oh you can expect to pay for the latest Stephenie Meyer twinkling vampire books or the latest New York Times best-sellers.
Now, you ask yourself, why would I be interested in these old general guides on travel to unexplored areas? The fact of the matter is that I love old travel books. Burton’s own First Footsteps in East Africa, or An Exploration of Harar (1855) and his voluminous A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Mecca (1855-56), in which he disguised himself as an Arab and did all the Holy Places of Islam, are two of the most exciting books ever written.
Going farther afield, there are writers like W. H. Hudson on Argentina and Uruguay, H. M. Tomlinson’s The Sea and the Jungle (1912) about a voyage to the interior of Brazil; George Gissing’s By the Ionian Sea (1901) about a trip along the heel and sole of the Italian boot; and Captain Irving Johnson’s The Peking Battles Cape Horn (1932) about the last big sailing ship through the storms of Cape Horn.
These are just a few authors and titles that come to mind. How can I forget Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana (1937)? Or Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (1977) or The Songlines (1987)? Or Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express (1979)?
One of these days, I will put together a more organized list of my favorite travel books—but that will take a little time!