A Sack of Cobwebs

Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham (1852-1936) was a world traveler par excellence, a splendid horseman, a controversial member of Parliament for North West Lanarkshire, and one of a handful of super-great travel writers. I am currently reading his Mogreb-el-Acksa about a trip to the forbidden city of Tarudant in Southern Morocco. He never made it to his destination, but his descriptions of his attempt are world-class literature. The following single long sentence is taken from his Preface to the book.

So I apologise for lack of analysis, neglect to dive into the supposititious motives which influence but ill-attested acts, and mostly for myself for having come before the public with the history of a failure to accomplish what I tried; and having brought together a sack of cobwebs, a pack of gossamers, a bale of thistle-down, dragon-flies’ wings, of Oriental gossip as to byegone facts, of old-world recollections, of new-world practices half understood; lore about horses’ colours, of tales of men who never bother much to think, but chiefly act, carving their lives out, where still space is left in which to carve, and acting thus so inconsiderately whilst there still remain so many stones unbroken, social problems to be solved, and the unpuncturable pneumatic tyre not yet found out.

Summer Reading

During the Heat of Summer, My Mind Turns to India

Most people’s idea of summer reading is of some cheap paperback to be consumed on a beach towel or on a long plane, train, or bus ride. There are a large number of trashy novels written each year to satisfy this undemanding audience. My taste in reading material, however, is more of what you would describe as deep-dish.

When the temperature rises into the 80s F (30s Celsius), there are certain books that appeal to me. Looking back over July and August in the last several years, here is what appeals most to me during temperature spikes:

  • Books about India, such as those written by William Dalrymple, author of City of Djinns
  • The novels of William Faulkner set in Mississippi
  • The novels of Brazilian author Jorge Amado set in his native State of Bahia
  • The novels and short stories of Chilean author Roberto Bolaño
  • American and French noir novels
  • The Travis McGee novels of John D. MacDonald set in South Florida
  • Travel books such as those written by Freya Stark, who traveled extensively by herself in the Middle East

Sometimes, I go in the opposite direction: I recently read Chauncey C. Loomis’s Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall, about a failed trip to discover the North Pole.

I am currently rereading William Faulkner’s Go Down Moses and have Jorge Amado’s Home Is the Sailor in my TBR pile.

Travel Without Leaving Home

Vicuñas Seen on the Road to Puno, Peru

Why should I care that you become an armchair traveler rather than an actual traveler? Curmudgeon that I am, if I ran into you on my travels, all eager to talk about your lovely home town of East Jesus, Arkansas, you would be met with a torrent of Hungarian and not a word of English. I would be perfectly happy to see you indulge your desire for travel by reading a book rather than obtruding with your actual presence.

As for myself, I not only like to travel, but I like to read about travel. Here is a list of an even dozen travel classics. Curiously, they are all written by English or American travelers. Not that other peoples have not written travel classics: Only, they tend to be more obscure in the Anglo-American world of publishing. And besides, the English are so damned good at it!

The following are presented in alphabetical order by author:

  • Robert Byron: The Road to Oxiana (1937). Driving through Persia to reach Afghanistan at a time when roads were few and hairy.
  • Bruce Chatwin: In Patagonia (1977). Not everything Chatwin says is 100% true, but it always is 100% fascinating.
  • Lawrence Durrell: Prospero’s Cell, A Guide to the Landscape and manners of Corcyra (1945). All Durrell’s travel books are worth reading.
  • Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time to Keep Silence (1957). About the first part of a walking tour from Holland to Istanbul, just as the Second World War is about to break out.
  • John Gimlette: At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig (2003). A fascinating book about Paraguay, its history and people.
  • Graham Greene: The Lawless Roads (1939). Greene’s research for his novel The Power and the Glory, about a trip to Mexico during a persecution of the Catholic Church.
  • Eric Newby: Slowly Down the Ganges (1966). About an attempt to navigate the sacred river of India all the way to the Indian Ocean.
  • Freya Stark: The Valley of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels (1934). By a woman traveling alone in the Middle East!
  • John Steinbeck: The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951). Travels in the Gulf of California doing oceanographic research.
  • John Lloyd Stephens: Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán (1841). Travels in Maya land in the middle of a civil war.
  • Paul Theroux: The Old Patagonian Express (1979). The book that inspired my own travels to South America.
  • Colin Thubron: To a Mountain in Tibet (2011). A religious pilgrimage to Mount Meru, a magnet for three religions.

I could have added another twelve without too much further thought. Hell, I could have added another hundred.

Born in Cleveland, we were too poor to afford travel far beyond Northeastern Ohio. That resulted in my case with an insatuiable desire to see the world, which I started to do in 1975. God, how I wish I could live long enough to continue in the same vein.