Book a Trip

Can't get away? Words can take you instead

If you are a good person and you are also wealthy, gift giving is not a problem. You can send your parents on a cruise. You can take your husband hiking in the Cotswolds. Or sail to Antarctica in an ice-proof boat with your girlfriend (if she's very tolerant). Well, I can't make such grand gestures. If you can, stop reading right now and run, don't walk, to your nearest adventurous travel agent. I, meanwhile, will comfort myself as best I can by cynically ruminating that there really is nowhere left to go. Everything has been done and seen and perhaps bungee-jumped already. And there are books to prove it that, come to think of it, make excellent gifts for people inclined to stay home. On a daring trip to the bookstore, I noticed a few trends in travel books, which follow. And hey, with all these books to read, who has time to go anywhere? Polar exploration: First and foremost, if you have been living in a hole for the past year and haven't heard of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his heroic/doomed expedition to Antarctica, I recommend crawling out of that hole and paying attention. One summer a few years ago, when I was hanging out with a lot of outdoorsy types and thought I could no longer be surprised by tales of extreme travel, my then-boyfriend gave me a copy of Frank Worsley's firsthand account of the expedition. I sighed with anticipated boredom, but within a chapter I was hooked. In 1914, Shackleton aimed to make the first trip across the continent by foot, but he never actually arrived. His ship was trapped and then crushed in the ice pack in the Weddell Sea, and Shackleton and his crew spent a polar winter (that is, dark all the time) first in the ship, and then camped on the ice. This is a story. Worsley's book has since been reissued (Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure; W.W. Norton, $25.95), and there is also Caroline Alexander's The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition (Knopf, $29.95), with stunning photographs of the ship as it succumbed to the ice, and of the remarkable leader who managed to keep his whole crew alive through the 20-month expedition. More stories of trips to both poles have since surfaced. Farthest North, originally written in 1897 by Dr. Fridtjof Nansen (now reissued in abridged form by Modern Library, $14.95), tells the story of Nansen's 1893 quest for the North Pole, first by boat and then by dogsled. North to the Night: A Spiritual Odyssey in the Arctic, by Alvah Simon (Broadway Books, $13), brings the adventure into the present day; his ship, the Roger Henry, suffered the same fate as Shackleton's on a trip to the Arctic Circle—except he stranded himself there on purpose, to explore the spiritual dimension of this ultimate isolation and utter darkness. Finally, Francis Spufford's I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (St. Martin's, $26.95) tries to pin down this extraordinary obsession with exploration in the extreme reaches of the world. Travel to places that don't exist: The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi, both of them editors, translators, and essayists; Harcourt Brace, $40) had been updated and reissued with more places you can't really go, but are amazing to read about, such as Calvino's Invisible Cities, Rushdie's Sea of Stories, and other more (well known?) places such as Atlantis and Oz and the Island of the Lotus Eaters. G. Garfield Crimmins has borrowed heavily from Griffin and Sabine creator Nick Bantock and created (to his credit) a lovely lookalike, called The Republic of Dreams: A Reverie (W.W. Norton, $19.95). It takes place on an island "between the Sea of Clouds and the Sea of the Unseen" and requires the cheapest form of travel there: via imagination. My favorite of the not-quite-real guides is The Travellers' Guide to Hell (Cadogan Books, $6.95). Hell may actually exist, but let's not be pedantic. Either way, I learned how to tell a Jewish demon from a Christian demon, the local geography, and what to expect as far as refreshments. Anti-travel books: Looking for useful books to make you feel better about not being able to go anywhere? Roger Rapoport has edited two anthologies about travel disasters: After the Death of a Salesman: Business Trips to Hell (Rdr Books, $15.95) and I Should Have Stayed Home (Rdr Books, $15.95). In the same vein, but a bit more intrepid, is Lonely Planet Unpacked: Travel Disaster Stories (Lonely Planet Publications, $12.95). Then there is Nik Cohn's rather disturbing Yes We Have No: Adventures in the Other England (Knopf, $22), which is about the England that is not so fab or mod or glam. It takes the reader from out-of-work coal miners to Hell's Angels to exorcists. The most beautiful book: Hands down, it has to be Lonely Planet Sacred India (Lonely Planet Publications, $29.95). While it won't do to be overly romantic about India, this book is filled with gorgeously saturated photographs: piles of colored powder for holi, face-painted sadhus, Buddhists in their tangerine robes. Again, a beautiful book, but don't go to India—don't even read about India—without a typhus shot. See Gifts of the Week, this issue. An excellent book without a category: Lucy Lippard's On the Beaten Track (The New Press, $25) is an art critic's cultural critique of the whole idea of tourism. Lippard tends to be a little bleak about travel, but is convinced that a city's artists can not only reclaim it for the locals, but also can better interpret the experience for the tourists. Emily Hall is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

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