Wordy, Worldly Travels


By Tanya Silverman

The Travel Writing section in New York City’s Strand Book Store. Photo by Tanya Silverman.

As far as humanity has advanced through the ages, time travel machines have yet to be invented.

Nevertheless, numerous vessels have been engineered (and animals domesticated) for the sake of our travels. In addition, preserved works of the written word can transport our modern minds back through bygone periods–and even vicariously journey through the adventurous expeditions our ancestors took.

The basement of New York City’s Strand Book Store holds a special section that can take customers far beyond the shop’s proudly proclaimed expanse of “18 miles of books:” Travel Writing. Curious visitors who scan through these titles are thus invited to tour Italy or France by the guidance of Henry James, or follow an older Mark Twain around the equator.

Readers interested in the heritage of female travel can skim through the letters, lists, and journals compiled in Jane Robinson’s Anthology, Unsuitable for Ladies. Defying the confines of matrimonial norms and maternal domesticity, many of the featured “unladylike” writers ventured from 19th Century England over to “The Continent” or even ascended the brutal peaks of Patagonia or the Himalayas.

A number of the anthology’s writers offer fashion tips for traveling, like handling the blistering mornings of the Indian subcontinent or scrambling up the rocky Alps.

“Of course every lady engaged on an Alpine journey will wear a broad-brimmed hat, which will relieve her from the incumbrance of a parasol,” wrote Mrs. H. W. Cole in A Lady’s Tour around Monte Rosa in 1859. “She should also have a dress of some light woolen material, such as Carmelite or alpaca, which, in case of bad weather, does not look utterly forlorn when it has been wetted and dried.”

A separate travel section is also stored stories above, up in the Strand’s attic, within the store’s designated Rare Book Room. The faintly smudged words in the moderately rubbed, lightly bumped leather volume document Mrs. Trollop’s European travel account, Belgium and Western Germany in 1833. The big, blue book produced through William Woodville Rockhill’s diary gives a glimpse of his trudges through Mongolia and Tibet a few years prior to its 1894 publishing date.

Though the Strand provides a good amount of historical exploratory literature today, physical bookstores specializing in antiquarian travel books have become rare. New York City’s The Complete Traveller recently closed its doors, though they still sell their books online. Brockhaus/Antiquarian functioned as a family-owned antiquarian travel bookstore in Leipzig, Germany for over a century. Though the business restructured and relocated to the city of Stuttgart, the company still abides by its original plan of providing “a place to buy unusual, rare, and beautiful books on travel, history of travel, geography, and ethnology.”

Stuart Leggatt established London-based Meridian Rare Books in 2007 as a trade service that deals with rare travel, exploration, and science publications. Leggatt, who has been working in the trade for over 20 years, tells BTR that the internet has certainly transformed the bookselling business in the existence of bookstores.

Nevertheless, readers’ interests in antique travel books persist because of their “cachet of describing what one could generically call ‘firsts,’” like being the “first to circumnavigate the world, first to visit a place or region, first to climb a mountain, etc.”

There’s a plethora of travel accounts from the 19th century in the Meridian Books inventory. Leggatt explains that this era succeeds that of the Age of Exploration, when Columbus, Captain Cook, Vasco, and other figures navigated the oceans. Europeans were still interested in penetrating the interiors of exotic locales like Africa, Australia, Tibet, South America, and the Poles.

“Such exploration began to emerge in the 19th century, sponsored by various organizations such as the African Association,” Leggatt explains. “The Royal Geographical Society was founded in 1830 to promote such exploration and discovery.”

In terms of the interest in preserved books printed during the 1800s, Leggatt tells BTR that these objects offer an attractive aesthetic with their ornate bindings and decorative cloth. Moreover, their content illustrates the essence of people, places, and cultures that may have changed considerably or even disappeared.

“Crucially, older travel literature informs us about these cultures and I hope inculcates a sense of their value and uniqueness for today’s readers,” he assesses. “I’d also point out that many of the [historical] travelers were incredibly hardy and endured conditions that few of us today would expect to undergo.”

Leggatt recommends reading Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World to learn how an equation of determination and skill, plus a little luck, will “turn a person’s fortune.”

As much as readers can understand the realities of travelers past, what about traveling to the future?

Traveling in Taiwan. Photo by Tanya Silverman.

Back in the basement of the Strand, surrounded by the shelves of the Travel Writing and Travel guides sections, stands a table of staff-curated recommendations. Nestled next to some contemporary selections–Robyn Davidson’s Tracks through the Australian deserts or John Waters’ hitchhikes through America–sits the quintessential book to chronicle the travel literature of the future: a blank journal.