Best Travel Writing Anthologies

I am a big fan of travel writing anthologies. The nice thing about them is that you can sit down for a brief period, say a subway ride, and consume a story about someone’s adventure abroad and for just that brief period, be transported to someplace far away. The other thing about these anthologies is that the stories tend to be crisp and extremely well-written, largely because they have been selected by expert editors who have culled through mountains of stories to bring you the select few they deem worthy of publication in a book. I’ve recently taken a look art two wonderful anthologies that I highly recommend.

The first is The Best American Travel Writing 2006 edited by Tim Cahill. I brought this along with me on my Baja trip and consumed each story with relish (and a dollop of salsa…ha!). Seriously, the stories here are wonderful and they just keep coming. From Michael Behar’s thoughtful and at times harrowing piece on finding lost tribes in the rain forests of West Papua to a splendid piece on the quirky founders of Lonely Planet, this series never fails to both entertain and inspire. If you’re like me, you will find yourself constantly taking notes on new places you want to visit, let alone scribbling marginalia to remind yourself about wickedly clver turns of phrase to help your own writing. Take, for example, George Saunders hilarious journey through Dubai, where he encounters perhaps the most bizarre examples of conspicuous consumption on the planet: a series of lavish, luxury-laden hotels that belong in an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story about impossible human comforts. There is hardly a single story in this book that will not leave you either smiling or checking prices on for flights to, say, St. Petersburg (see Gary Shteyngart’s piece on that subject).

Another fine collection comes from the good folks at Travelers’ Tales who every year compile their take on the year’s best travel writing for their Best Travel Writing 2006 anthology. I’ve read this anthology a few years running now and always find the picks both mind and soul-nourishing. They can also be quite funny. One of the great things about the editors’ choices here (the book is put together by TT’s Larry Habegger, James O’Reilly and Sean O’Reilly) is the passionate focus on story.

It may seem obvious that a “story” be the key feature of a travel tale, but the fact is, many writers tend to forget that what keeps us interested and eager to keep reading, is the desire to know what is going to happen next? TT’s Best Travel Writing is filled with tales that make you want to turn the page to find out what happens next.

Take, for example, Patrick Symmes’ “The Book”, a story that ran in Outside about a legendary travel guide compiled by vagabond Israelis that became a kind of Talmud of Travel. Having traveled myself in Latin America, I heard of this book, but more or less pooh-poohed the possibility that it actually existed. Turns out I was wrong.

Another wonderful story is Joel Simon’s “Fiji Time,” which opens with the joyful Fijian word of welcome “Bula!”, but then ends with a guy nearly getting his leg bitten off by a shark. These are just two of many, many fine stories that I could spend an entire day writing about here.

One of the great things about TT’s anthology is that the choices here are truly eclectic, and come from people and publications that are far from mainstream magazines. The America’s beset series ha a few of these, but TT does a better job, I think, of finding stuff that you’ve probably never seen.

So if you’re a traveler and are still hunting around for some good reading for yourself or perhaps a gift for a wanderlusting friend, consider one or both of these excellent books.