Famous Travel Writers Who Changed The Game
Travel writing sometimes has the reputation of being rather one note; there’s a general belief that Bill Bryson and his ilk set the tone for the genre decades ago, and that no-one’s tried changing it since.
But that’s far from the truth. In actuality, travel writing is as rich, diverse and unusual as any other non-fiction genre.
Indeed, some of the most important and cutting-edge writers of the modern era have tried their hand at travel writing, producing vibrant, important work in the process.
To that end, here are five travel writers you may not have stumbled across before.
Before he tragically died in a car accident at the too young age of 57, WG Sebald was one of the most important writers working. His novels blend fiction, non-fiction and history: they are explosions of his interest areas, suffused with random details accumulated from a life of being curious.
One of my most treasured possessions: a photocopy of W G Sebald’s handwritten list of his favourite books, which he provided at the request of the wonderful (& sorely missed) Freiburg bookseller Thomas Bader, who wanted to make a display of them in his shop pic.twitter.com/aVieVzNGva
— Martin Shaw (@thebooksdesk) May 2, 2018
Of them all, Rings Of Saturn is Sebald’s most potent work. A semi-fictional travel diary, it’s a record of the unspooling thoughts of an unnamed narrator as they amble through the bucolic village of Suffolk.
As they walk, they consider the landscape around them; the science that explains it; the history that underpins it. It’s a book that brings one closer to Suffolk, of course, but also to the human experience in general. Read it to understand England; the world around you; your own life.
Robert Macfarlane is one of the few travel writers who seeks to explore the relationship between the natural world and the words we use to describe it.
His book Landmarks isn’t just a travel guide of the British isles, although it’s most certainly that: it’s also one of the most innovative non-fiction texts ever penned about the United Kingdom, examining how changes in our ever-modernising world are affecting local dialects and languages.
Word of the day: "aconite" – one of the earliest, hardiest & brightest of winter wildflowers, in blossom now, lending lustre to land under trees & in hedges. Aconite's scientific name, Eranthis hyemalis, attests to the seasonal threshold it bridges; lit. spring-flower of winter. pic.twitter.com/UwO3OyOO03
— Robert Macfarlane (@RobGMacfarlane) January 23, 2019
It’s also pockmarked with astonishing turns of phrase that Macfarlane has collected on his travels like a prospector sweeping a sieve through a river. “Rionnach maoim”, he tells us, is what to call the shape of shadows moving across the moors; “feith” are the veins that run through great swathes of peat.
Emily Hahn never stayed still a day in her life. First making a name for herself via a New Yorker article recounting a cross-country trip she made with a friend while dressed as a man, the feminist icon wrote both fiction and non-fiction inspired by her travels.
My favourite author ‘apologies’ #2 Emily Hahn, The Soong Sisters (1941)… pic.twitter.com/McejpvlNEW
— China Rhyming (@chinarhyming) January 21, 2019
Sometimes her writing was serious and challenging: Diamond: The Spectacular Story of Earth’s Rarest Treasure and Man’s Greatest Greed details the cruelty inflicted in the name of wealth. Sometimes it was deeply funny and moving: China To Me, an account of her travels throughout Asia, scorches with the force of her wit and humour. And always it was kind, empathetic, and intelligent.
George Saunders is probably best known for his short fiction: he writes miraculous, deeply empathetic tales of catharsis and salvation (though he won the Booker Prize in 2017 with Lincoln in the Bardo). But across his varied and fascinating career, Saunders has occasionally dipped into travel writing, and his work there is just as urgent.
Find out what makes you kinder, what opens you up and brings out the most loving, generous and unafraid version of you – and go after those things as if nothing else matters. Because, actually, nothing else does.
— George Saunders
— A. Nightsong (@nightsong_a) January 23, 2019
Probably his best known travel story is ‘The New Mecca’, in which Saunders perfectly captures the absurdity of luxury hotels while on a sponsored trip throughout Dubai. But his short piece on the “Buddha Boy” of Nepal, available to read in full on GQ, is just as fascinating; it’s a strange, frequently surprising story of belief, the miraculous, and what it means to suffer for your art.
Mary Shelley is best known as the author of Frankenstein. But, over the course of her rich and too short life, she also became something of a polymath. She was one of the first celebrity authors; a feminist, essayist and traveller who collaborated on multiple texts with her husband Percy Shelley, also a noted author and socialite.
One of them, History of a Six Weeks’ Tour, is one of the foundational texts of the modern travel writing genre. An occasionally funny, deeply insightful description of Mary and Percy’s travel across France, the work combines philosophy and historical investigation in a way that would prove to be deeply influential.
"I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other." – Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
— Инга Игоревна (@xdauphine) January 23, 2019
It is well worth your time: after all, if you’re looking for some intelligent travel writing, why not go back to the very source?
Of course, you could also read some travel writing from this very site; check out our piece on the best time to visit Japan here.