On Travel Books

Today we will be talking about a book form called The Travel book or Travelogue.  This type of book can be found in various time periods throughout history and is often mixed with some other fiction and non-fiction forms. It might sound a bit confusing at first, but it is actually quite logical when given some thought. We can find some of the oldest written pieces of literature in this particular field- such as the Homer’s “Odyssey” – which is primarily a work of fiction, but it contains portrayals of the real places (such as the Ancient Mediterranean lands). This example is a bit extreme, as it is filed with religious and fantastic events, but it may be used as a starting point of the evolution of travel books. On the other hand, we have modern day travel guides.

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The Easter Island were always shrouded by a thick veil of mysteries. From their discovery in 1722 the Moai and the Rapa Nui people have been a splendid source of inspiration for many and myths.

The reason for this comparison is that it clearly shows an ever present opposition of fantasy and reality throughout the human history, which also applies to written forms of human creativity. As time passed world has become a much smaller place and the facts have slowly beaten fantasy. However, the most fascinating and interesting segment of travel books is this unreal, magical moment that they possess. When you are reading a modern travel guide as a preparation for a visit to an exotic foreign country you can see all the things which are described in a book: a beautiful landscape, breathtaking historical monument or a geological wonder of nature. It will surely be a more powerful experience seeing it than reading it in a book, but it will look exactly as described. However, if you were traveling the route of a New Lands explorer, you wouldn’t see the mermaids, monsters of the deep or giant whirlpools described in his travel journal, and  you will most certainly not be welcomed as a deity who descended to the native’s lands from the unknown ‘beyond’.

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Pal Rosti’s Uti Elekezetek Amerikabol is a monumental work by all standards. Containing a great amount of illustrations, this early travel book of South America is one of the most detailed and early accounts of the continent.

The craze for the travel literature started with the discoveries of the new lands beyond the sea and the start of the colonization. The invention of the printing press and the rise of literacy among the common folk also played a significant role. As the seafarers and explorers got home from the foreign lands, they told stories about their adventures and experiences. Some of them even wrote journals which were later published. Clerics and scholars often accompanied travel expeditions. The information about the foreign lands was often inaccurate, second handed, distorted and sometimes simply not true. This occurred as a consequence of the language barriers, misinterpretations of information or just plain ignorance. The maps in these travel books were mostly inaccurate and the illustrations sometimes significantly differed from what we today take to be the standard for these types of books.

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Voyage dans interieur Chine Tartarie is a breathtaking work from the late 19th century worthy of notice.

In the times when  the very first explorers and their entourages voyaged the traveling was safer and cheaper. Soon after them came the professionals whose main purpose of traveling was to record culture, nature, geography, local customs and other wonders of the newly discovered world.  With their arrival travel books became more accurate, but the locations were still very exotic for their readers- some of whom never ventured further than to the nearest town. It was their magical window into the world that they would never see with their own eyes.

Nowadays those early travel books stand as a testimony of a never-ending human hunger for knowledge and exploration.  Their informative value is mostly reduced to a historical significance. These books still remain the portal for our minds, allowing us to perceive the world in a completely different way.

Dušan Dimitriev
Душан Димитриев

Images from listings at Sigedon Books and Antiques store.

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