Book Review: Travel: A Literary History

Travel: A Literary History
Peter Whitfield (Bodleian Library, £19.99, *£17.99)

When I want to travel,’ Voltaire admitted, ‘I turn to my library.’ And this was well before the modern boom in travel literature. The travel-writing genre has become one of the great facts of the modern book trade, and one of its glories, too. A visit to any bookshop will reveal whole sections of shelving given over to humorous accounts of foreign misfortunes and cultural mis-understandings, to gritty report-age from inhospitable hot-spots, and to modish literary experiments set against the back-
ground of Antarctica, Africa or south London. But if the genre has exploded in recent years, it is an efflorescence that rests on the achievements of a long history-a very long history, as Peter Whitfield’s highly entertaining survey makes clear.

Mr Whitfield offers a wonderfully thorough (if unapologetically Eurocentric) account of travel writing, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Colin Thubron and beyond, taking in the Book of Exodus, Herodotus, Marco Polo, Spanish conquistadores, Capt Cook, the Grand Tour and Dr Livingstone. After the 17th century, he focuses exclusively on travel writing in English.

Although the book is elegantly framed within a historical narrative, it works primarily as an old-fashioned guidebook: a gazet-teer of the wide and varied terrain of travel literature. Cer-tainly, like a good guidebook, it stimulates your interest, and makes you want to set off to visit, not uncharted lands, but unread and unfamiliar volumes. I now want to set sail upon the pages of the 7th-century Voyage of St Brendan (with its tales of Latin-speaking seabirds, and the rock in the Atlantic where Judas Iscariot was allowed to spend his holidays from Hell).

I want to explore the wild jungles of Cieza de Leon’s Chronicle of Peru, a sympathetic first-hand account of the Spanish discovery of that country, written with sympathy on a drumhead using a condor’s feather as a quill as poison darts whistled through the air. I want to make a Grand Tour of the Most delectable and true Discourse of a Peregrination in Europe, Asia and Africa-a richly discursive tale by the intemperate Scottish traveller William Lithgow, who roved across the Mediterranean world in the early 1600s, complaining about everything from the Spanish Inquisition to the sexual practices of the Italians.

Mr Whitfield’s survey provides all the information and encouragement you need for a rewarding staycation in your own library.