Sunday, March 4, 2012

WiTList - Travel Themed Books (Fiction)

SSomewhere over the Atlantic Ocean I read the last few lines of J.R.R Tolkien's Return of the King, wrapping up the author's masterpiece Lord of the Rings trilogy. I shoved the fat paperback down into my backpack and reflected on the protagonist's harrowing adventure, a journey across swamps, over mountains and through forests. Before I fell asleep, I remember my mind drifting through recent memories of my own trek across the Mediterranean, over waves and through the ancient ruins of my ancestors.

That was twelve years ago, mid-flight on the return trip home to Boston after my first international trip. Tolkien was a high school assignment read, but no less engaging and thought-provoking. More than a decade later, the books come in sleek, light-as-a-feather e-reader form and school is no longer telling me what to read. But the adventure novel, from classic to contemporary, still calls to me. I'm not talking about the hackneyed, bubblegum Live, Love, Pray, Fart books that have saturated pop-culture. This is literature - insightful, creative and inspiring.

The travel theme runs throughout literature, as a the driving plot point, a flowery setting description or a bit of character development. Whatever its use, the journey clearly outweighs the destination. And as a writer, nothing chews up the in-flight hours like discovery and exploration on the pages of a good book.

My picks:

10. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Better than Apocalypse Now. I never thought I'd ever write that because there really aren't a lot of things in this world that are better than that movie. But Conrad's original prose intertwines a sense of adventure with the shadowy reaches of human nature. Brando was great and all, but Conrad's Kurtz is one crazy king. The layers of symbolism, from the dark jungle to the dark British treatment of African tribes, make this novella on of the best examples of how travel writing isn't all souvenirs and sunny beaches. 

9. The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford
In making this list I realized that a lot of my favorite travel-themed books came from my childhood. Is there a better tale of adventure and overcoming obstacles than that of two dogs and a cat, trekking home and fighting porcupines? I think not. Shadow made me want to train dogs. I never did. But still, I wanted to. 

8. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

Every list about travel books is required to have this on it. Forget the fact that the places Good Ole Gulliver visits don't actually exist. OK, maybe they do, maybe they're just representations of various nations and societies that Swift so intelligently skewered in this satiric masterpiece. But in reality, you and I aren't going to hop a plane to an island of horse people or tiny warriors. Nevertheless, Swift's spot-on satire expresses the human flaw of never being satisfied. But for an adventure-seeker, that trait must have left Gulliver with some great vacation pictures. 

7. The Call of the Wild by Jack London

I very easily could have chosen White Fang for this spot. This image cover was just cooler. Either way,  every kid I grew up with loved London, wanted a wolf for a pet and thought he could rough it in the Great White North with a backpack and some sticks. Like Incredible Journey, this book proves adventure is not just for bipeds and a skilled writer can articulate the lure of a place through the eyes of any warm-blooded creature. While mostly considered a children's book, Buck the dog encounters some pretty hairy adult situations, making The Call of the Wild a formidable piece of literature, and a damn good read. 

6. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

It's hard to pick one Hemingway piece, since the man practically defined literature in the 20th century. All at once a travel writer, novelist, essayist and adventurer, Hemingway paved the way for other writers seeking to convey freedom through travel. The Old Man and the Sea is a prime example of Hemingway's ability to build complexity through simplicity. The protagonist goes fishing, catches a huge fish only to have it picked apart on the way back to port. Find whatever symbolism you want, or just enjoy the ride.

5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Sticking with the classics, Twain's epic novel of a young boy's trip down the Mississippi conjures feelings of youthful exuberance and blissful ignorance. Huck's sense of adventure and willingness to explore the world he knows and doesn't know, could inspire anyone. Twain's masterful prose doesn't hurt, either.

4. On The Road by Jack Kerouac

One of the most enigmatic writers of American writers, Kerouac based this book on his own road trips that he randomly took with friends. Drugs, alcohol, music, scandal - pretty much the cornerstones of the great American road trip. For the Beat Generation, anyway. I don't recommend following Kerouac's itinerary to the letter, but by all means indulge the free spirit.

3. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

The pinnacle of the fantasy epic, Tolkien's defining work spawned three blockbuster movies and the brief acting rebirth of the kid that played Rudy. Movies aside, Lord of the Rings at its core is a story about a journey, undertaken by a reluctant traveler at the behest of a weary traveler. Strip away the orcs, wizards and floating eyes encircled by fire, and you've got a genuine buddy tale that carries across swamps, over mountains, into forests and through castles. Frodo's trip to Mordor motivates wanderers and walkabouts to this day. 

2. The Odyssey by Homer

I've sailed in the Mediterranean and did not come across harpies, giant teeth-filled whirlpools or an island of cyclops. Nevertheless, Homer's epic has always been one of my favorites. After being forced to read it in high school, it was the main reason I joined up for a school trip to Greece and Italy. Odysseus' adventures, as gruesome as they may have been, inspired me to see the world. I'll always have a soft spot for the Great Tactician.

1. Ernest Hemingway's Short Stories

The only person that warrants more than one mention on this list is also the most misunderstood. Hemingway, probably better known for his longer form books, was in my opinion a much more skilled short story writer. These two are just examples of the myriad short stories Hemingway wrote that deeply describe a location, tell a heart-wrenching tale and pose world questions all within limited space. That takes skill; a skill not many others have ever had. The man deserves the number one spot and I dare anyone, man or beast, to question that. 

Your picks:

- Sarah from @Shemkus says: E.M. Forster's A Room With A View

- Jen from @myownaudience says: You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers  

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