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08 April 2010

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I think I liked the Bryson book far more than the Horwitz, but I appreciated the Horwitz book more for the information I learned from it. I really don't know much about Cook or the Pacific islands he explored, so I was glad to get the opportunity to learn about them, and I liked the way Horwitz used Cook to back into them. I wouldn't have picked up a book about them otherwise. (Sorry, I'm just more likely to go for Medieval Europe or the ancient Near East. Or WWI. I'm a dork.)

I love both authors, and I've read quite a bit by both, so yeah, I'll read more as the mood strikes me. I do agree with what a few people said yesterday, that Bryson is better when he's talking travel than when he's writing about science or memoir. A Walk in the Woods is one of my favorites.

As to the appeal of travel books, I think they offer a nice bit of fantasy for most people. Most of us won't spend months or years exploring odd bits of the world, or living in a villa in Tuscany, or taking a boat down the Nile. But travel books (at least the well written ones) allow me to see that world through the eyes of someone who's like me, but a little bit bolder.

Personally, I went to Istanbul alone last November and had a great time, but the hardest part was chatting with strangers. I did it, though, and had a better trip for it. But I still prefer to let other people do that for me. Lazy? Shy? You bet.

I did not dislike either book. I am perhaps not the most discerning reader, but I really enjoyed both. If I had to pick a favorite, however, I would choose “Blue Latitudes” because it was so informative. Like Rachael, I probably would not have read it, were it not for the Ménage. Yes, “In a Sunburned Country” was very funny and I had fun reading it, but I feel like I really learned a lot in reading “Blue Latitudes”. My 24 year old college educated co-worker did not even know who the Aborigine are. At first I was appalled, but it made me think. I never was taught in school about Australia. Much of my knowledge about the world comes from books I have read for pleasure, both fiction and non-fiction, or television. So I guess I really shouldn’t fault her.

I have already read quite a few books by Bill Bryson. Definitely as a result of participating in the ménage, I am interested in reading Horwitz’s “Confederates in the Attic”. From the comments, it seems like the popular choice.

I think the appeal is the vicarious experience of travel or arm chair tourism. Most people will never be able to travel the world the way these and other writers have. Who has both the money and the time? By reading about travel, you can share in the experience without leaving the house. I agree with your comment from the Ménage: Day One; both books could have used some pictures. That would have been helpful.

I enjoyed the Bryson a lot more! The Horwitz felt a bit, um, tedious much of the time. Fascinating concept, not-so-fascinating execution for me. That being said, I do try to give authors a second chance (as long as they're not moronic), and I'm curious about Confederates in the Attic. My AMAZING US History AP high school teacher did reenactments (on the Union side; he was Texan too), and it'd be neat to find out more. That being said, I just checked and it's over 400 pages too, so I'm going to have to prepare myself. hehe I definitely want to read more of Bryson's travel stuff now; this was the best book of his I've read so far (other two were Thunderbolt Kid and the one about Shakespeare).

I think another aspect of why travelogues might be popular since Rachael and Ruthiella already brought up some main reasons) is that people who get nervous at the idea of nonfiction might find them less intimidating. After all, they're closer to memoir than 'hard' nonfiction! And they're often written in a very narrative style, with a plot and 'characters' the author meets along the way. I've only really started reading travel books in the last year or so, and while it's not my favourite nonfiction genre, it is an interesting one. I want to be a teacher, so once I'm healthy enough to work, I plan to live frugally and travel during the summers. So I get ideas from travel books too! :)

Rachael,
I too enjoyed the Bryson more, but I certainly didn't feel any dumber after reading the Horwitz, and there's always something to be said for that. I still think shaving a 100 pages off of it would have helped a lot. But I recognize this type of "immersion" history and travel is popular because people really like to sink themselves into the details and the experience--for all my reading, I tend to do a lot more dipping in and out and reading several books at once, so immersion isn't something I typically seek out (that's what I turn to movies for).

I agree the "armchair traveling" aspect of traveling--reading about what you'll never have the time or money to see--is a large part of the appeal. I like that, but it almost equally pisses me off. I've been kind of pissy all week because I don't really anticipate ever having enough money or time to go spend a month in Australia. Good on you for getting to Istanbul--and for talking to strangers. I LOVE talking to strangers when abroad, when I can (I'm shy so chances are few but I take them--I had a lovely chat with a woman from Manchester in Edinburgh about tipping in GB) but it makes Mr. CR nutty.

Ruthiella,
I too liked both the books for different reasons. But gasp--how can you never have heard of Aborigines? Isn't the Millennial generation supposed to be so connected and aware and all that jazz? I weep for the state of our schools. Time for parents and libraries to step up and encourage solo reading--evidently that's the only place where stuff is picked up anymore? Wow, I'm just flabbergasted by that.

I did enjoy "Confederates in the Attic," although I thought at the time it was a little long too. But it'll definitely give you a lot of food for thought. Can't say it made me want to visit the American South much, though, which sounds horrible, but that's the one impression I remember.

Eva,
I was dancing around the word, but I think you've hit it with "tedious" re: the Horwitz. I don't think it's his fault--although I enjoyed learning about them, explorers, Captain Cook, and the South Pacific in general are way down on my list of interests.

I love your point about travel literature being more accessible than some nonfiction! It really is a nice middle point for people who don't want the real detailed stuff, but who might also want some more substance than a lot of memoirs are offering these days.

And I hope you feel well enough to work soon (although it feels weird to wish work on someone--I'm usually more focused on wishing people retirement) and to see some of the world.

I have to cut my 24 year old colleague some slack, despite her ignorance about Australia’s native inhabitants. When I was in my mid-twenties, I lived and worked in North West Germany. One evening after work, a German colleague gave me a lift home. As we passed a certain area on the freeway, my colleague said to me, “There is a great Neanderthal steak restaurant over there.” I asked, if it was some sort of theme restaurant, like Medieval Times, only with a caveman theme. She looked at me quizzically and said, “No, why would it be?” To make a long story short, I did not know that Neanderthal was a PLACE and the powers that be named Neanderthal man after the PLACE he was found. I then very quickly realized that Crô-Magnon was also a place, in France. Duh.

I will vote for Bryson as well. I prefer what I consider Horwitz's best (Confederates) over what I consider Bryson's best (Walk in the Woods). Part of it is the variability in the quality of the Horwitz. Some of the chapters were flabby and some were fast. It made reading it harder. The Bryson book was better edited or just better put together by Bryson.

I agree with Ruthiella and Rachael that a large part of it is about vicarious experience. That also though is an appeal of a lot of nonfiction in general. Ted Conover's Newjack lets us understand what it is like to be a prison guard, the latest John McPhee let's us know what it is like to be a trucker and so on. Just like travel, you can't do them all, so the fiction provides a way to see it.

It also helps us understand and it provides context. You can visit a number of places and not understand what you see. Travel writers, the better ones at least, do some research and can help explain why things are the way they are in place X and what it might mean. So even if you are traveling somewhere, you can understand it a little better. When they really work at it, as Horwitz does, it becomes a more digestible history book.

Ruthiella,
Yes, always a good idea to cut some slack (although I can't let go of the fact that I'm still surprised by it). And hey, I didn't know Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon were places--thanks for letting me in on that, finally! I guess it just matters what you pick up and what you read. I can't believe I'm telling you this story, but when I was 18 I had a college class in which we were supposed to tell people around us our "ethnicities" (it was some sort of sociology class). The guy next to me told me he was "mulatto" and I wrote down "milano" on my paper because I was familiar with the pepperidge farm cookie, but had never seen the term mulatto written down. Although in retrospect, I'm still kind of surprised (and interested) that's how he described himself.
The lessons are: if you need any cookie answers, I'm your girl; and we all need to be cut some slack now and then.

Tripp,
I do rather wonder what both Bryson's and Horwitz's texts look like before they're edited. Both for reasons of content and style. Maybe Horwitz was trimmed and we don't even know it!

I will have to think on your statements about vicarious experience. I love books like "Newjack," but I don't know if it's because I want to know what it's like to be a prison guard--I just find hearing about prison life from someone who's being given the "inside look" fascinating. Does that make it a vicarious reading experience for me? Or one in which I just want to learn something I perceive might be closer to the truth, because it's written by someone inserting themself into a system? It's a thinker.

I prefered Horwitz, but I'm a former History major and a nerd. Bryson was enjoyable, but I learned more from Horwitz.

I am definitely planning on reading "Confederates in the Attic". Ever since a friend from New Orleans told me that in school he learned about the "War of Northern Agression" I have been a sucker for the Civil War.

What I like about travel books is reading about places I'm never going to go, but also it can make you a more informed traveller when you DO go. I read "Iberia" by Michener before a Junior year abroad in Madrid and I felt much more prepared for the experience. Also, a good travel book has a good bibliography, which hopefully leads to more good reads.

I liked both books, but, while I learned more from Horwitz, I enjoyed Bryson more. I really respond to Bryson's humor and self-deprecation. I enjoy reading travel narratives because I enjoy reading introspective pieces that reflect on how experience changes people. One of the things I enjoyed most about Newjack, for instance, is his ongoing evaluation of how this experience is affecting him. Likewise with Salzman's True Notebooks - the experience in and of itself is interesting AND the writer brings reflection and self-awareness to the experience. Perhaps that why I'm not enjoying Horwitz as much - he doesn't seem to be exploring himself as he goes through these travels.

I've already read lots of Bryson - although some I just can't finish while others, like A Walk in the Woods, I adore - and will no doubt keep an eye on him. I did read Confederates in the Attic and enjoyed it but, again, not my favorite.

I don't know why others read travel books, but when I read them, which isn't all that often, I read them for the writer's perception of the place and him or herself.

1. I really liked the Bryson and I'm just having a painful time with the Horwitz. He's obviously quite the researcher (my degree was history also) but I'm finding him a bit stodgy. It's like he put Roger in here and there like a sort of "humor footnote," recognizing that he was funny but without being able to produce humor of his own. I wish I'd read it first, and then maybe it wouldn't have suffered in comparison to the Bryson.

2. "A Walk in the Woods" and "Confederates in the Attic" have both been on my list for ages, so eventually, yes.

3. I think the appeal of travel books is that they are the only places you will find the Real Honest Truth about other parts of the world. A travel guide is never going to tell you the stuff you really want to know, and a history or local newspaper likewise is going to be too broad for quotidian stuff.

Now I'm going to share a travel story. I went to New Zealand in 1994, and on the way off the plane I chatted with the flight attendant's daughter, an LA girl of about 18. She wanted to know if they had a beach. When I came home, on at least half a dozen occasions, when I would say I had just returned from NZ, someone would reply, "I've always wanted to go to Europe!"

I enjoyed both book, Bryson's more. In Horwitz's book, I mostly wanted him to get back to history and forget his odd friends. It was better when he was meeting locals but the people he drug around from the outside seemed like dead weight to me. He might have learned more if he hadn't been somewhat tending to them.

I have heard much good about Confederates in the Attic, so I might still try it if it is in audiobook, which I suspect it is. It might be good for gardening time.

I think Jessica may have found what is really interesting in travel narratives. The travelers find more than their guidebooks revealed. There are moments of confusion and learning and relying on one's ability to adapt. There are also embarrassing mistakes. It may be the human interactions that make travel most interesting, as well as the incredible places and history. We learn about a world outside what we know.

You know, I do have more of an inherent interest in explorers, and especially in seafaring stuff generally, and I just don't think Horwitz's writing was that great. I know that's mean to say, but when I talked about it on my blog awhile ago, I had a few agreeing comments, so at least I'm not the only one. :)

Marmota,
Books of any kind that include bibliographies are my favorites. I wonder if travel books in general more often include them? Yet another study I'd like to do. And a great point.

Laura,
I do agree about Bryson's style of humor, which I think also worked particularly well in Australia, where they seem (if his account is true at all) to have the lovely habit of not taking themselves too seriously. I'm hoping to read Bryson's "Notes from a Small Island" next, but may save it as a little treat and to space out my Brysons. I do think you can get enough of him at a time, but that's true for most authors.

Jessica,
Yes, I have to admit, I found the Horwitz a little stodgy too, and I just didn't enjoy his interactions with his traveling companion as much as I enjoyed Bryson's. I myself think I won't read any more Horwitz for the time being (his main crime for me being the length of his books).

The NZ story as Europe is both hilarious and kind of sad. Although, it did sound like a rather "British in spirit" island--maybe that's what's got people confused.

Rick,
I agree that travel really provides an "inside look," especially when authors take their time, which is really what most of us don't have the luxury of doing. I think that's why I really enjoyed that one new book of Rick STeves's that wasn't a guidebook--I enjoyed learning how HE really felt about travel and the places he'd been.

Eva,
Do you have another author you could suggest for either seafaring or exploration who would be a bit more exciting? I don't read a whole lot of books like that myself (I'm not a "True Adventure" girl, in action or reading tastes) but my Dad eats books like that up with a spoon, so I'm always watching for ideas for him.


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