Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Best American Travel Writing 2009

edited by Simon Winchester
Boston [Mass.] : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, c2009.

This collection of 25 travel articles written in 2008 is the tenth collection of Best American Travel Writing. A list was first culled by series editor Jason Wilson, and further pared down to the 25 articles selected by Simon Winchester. The collection begins with Winchester's introduction, an interesting short essay in its own right contrasting the American vs. British attitudes towards traveling the world, and bemoans the lack of geographic aptitude of Americans in general. The essays he has selected include a wide range of writing style, location, and purpose. It's impossible to succinctly summarize all twenty-five articles, so I will just focus on two to give a broad idea of the scope that is included.

One of the essays I thoroughly enjoyed was "The Mecca of the Mouse," by Seth Stevenson. Originally published on March 28, 2008, on, the article takes the metaphor of a religion to vacationing at THE vacation destination, Disney World. In a week of visiting, Stevenson sees several parks, and observes such things as the rides, the intended purposes of theme parks such as Epcot, and the people who visit (pointing out, for example, that a great many adults visit without kids at all). While I didn't always agree with his conclusions, he makes some good points regarding the artificiality of it all, and I found his article both entertaining and thought-provoking.

"Hotels Rwanda" by Jay Kirk, originally published in September, 2008 in GQ, is equally thought-provoking, though perhaps more sobering. The descriptions of where he goes and what he does with his three friends almost sounds like a bunch of college kids out for a lark, until you realize that his travel destination is Rwanda, only recently opened up to tourists since the genocide in 1994. History - and it is an odd thought to read of anything that happened in my lifetime referred to as "history" - has a way of intruding in his trip, striking an odd balance between having a good time, partying, and seeing endangered species in the wild, with the memory, horror, and memorials of ethnic tension, upheaval, and war.

Some travel purposes and destinations interested me more than others, but all were fascinating in their own way for highlighting a different facet of a region - ecology in Honduras, for example, or the government of Burma/Myanmar. While I still may not be the best at geography (I had to look up the locations mentioned in more than one essay), I really enjoyed this glimpse of a variety of regions around the world. It makes me want to read more globally, both in fiction and nonfiction, and maybe pick up another book of travel essays while I'm at it.

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