Posts Tagged ‘Internet Archive’

Travel writing recommendations

December 12, 2018

I don’t know how avidly some of my readers consume my pieces about travel-writing, whether texts I’ve read, or pieces about my own travels, but I thought I’d share some of my recommendations with you.

Over the years I’ve acquired – second-hand, for the series is no longer in print – many volumes of the Penguin Travel Library, which flourished in the seventies and eighties. It’s a very wide-ranging collection, and although it suffers from the poor production values of that period, used copies of most of the volumes do turn up for sale pretty regularly. Much harder to acquire, but more interesting because of the rarity of some of the volumes, are the famous cerise-coloured Penguins from the 1930s and 1940s. Some booksellers are trying to put silly prices on these, but mostly they can be found for reasonable prices; there’s an amazingly helpful website I discovered (isn’t the internet wonderful: it’s for things such as this that it needed to be invented!) which lists them all, with brief notes, here.

The Century Travellers series from Hutchinson had an interesting list, but many of their re-issues seem to have been photographic reprints of old editions, sometimes with dreadful antique fonts which are tiring to read. And among the backlists of the American budget publishers Dover Books there are many travel gems to be found, again often photographic reprints.

For a while – I think they’ve stopped now – a German publisher,Könemann, who produce beautifully clothbound hard-cover editions at very sensible prices, produced editions in English; a series with blue dust-jackets offered classics of English literature, and a series with deep reddish-brown covers were classics of travel literature in English: I can recommend both highly.

Reprints of travel classics are currently being issued by Eland, and there are some interesting rarities in their lists. And – though these are very expensive – it’s now possible to get reprints of any of the publications of the renowned Hakluyt Society from the very inception. These are very serious and often very dry academic works, though.

Finally, if you can read French, the publishers Payot Rivages, in their series Petite Bibliothèque Payot, have a long and very interesting list of travel writing comprising translations from English, which you won’t need, current writing in French, and writing from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which deserves to remain in print. And on my travels in France, I’m noticing more small publishers beginning to rediscover other lost delights.

Don’t overlook e-books either: if you come across a title from before 1923, chances are it’s available online to download in a variety of formats from Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive (that includes many Hakluyt Society titles!).


Peter Whitfield: Travel – A Literary History

January 18, 2018

51qmqSUU-+L._AC_US218_This was a well-produced book, from the Bodleian Library press (it’s nice to be able to say such a thing nowadays) and Peter Whitfield writes well as he surveys the territory of travel writing over the centuries. It does take a particular skill to know the range and scope of the territory, and then to select and summarise, to compare and comment, keeping everything under control. And there has to be an excellent bibliography – which there is. I have some gripes, which I’ll get on to later. But the book is a must for any serious reader of travel literature as a pointer to where to look next, what one may have missed and so on.

As I have often noticed, Whitfield also sees a progression over time in what has been done and then written about; heroism initially, then exploration; more recently travel and finally, in our day when there are no real unknowns, tourism and mass tourism. Similarly, written accounts have developed in scope, but also moved closer to being guidebooks.

I was pleased to encounter mentions of many writers I’d already read and enjoyed, as well as a few that I shall now be looking out for; a certain amount of downloading of historical texts from Project Gutenberg as well as the Internet Archive took place as I was reading. I also find travel writing eminently listenable-to as I’m driving, hearing about others’ travels as I’m on my own, far more modest trips.

One of the main things Whitfield notices and illustrates is the gradual relinquishing over time – though not probably fully until the last century – of the Westerner’s sense of superiority to the people he meets and the places he visits (for most of the travellers cited are male) and the realisation that the traveller is the foreigner in the lands he visits, rather than the inhabitants. Perhaps this may now seem rather obvious to us, but so much historical, religious and cultural baggage had to be abandoned before the penny dropped, as it were.

From the eighteenth century onwards, travel became more clearly the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Many of the least satisfactory accounts come from the nineteenth century, where the colonialist outlook is so much in the foreground, but once that era fades, in the twentieth century we are back with the learning traveller again.

However, curiously, as he approaches modern times, Whitfield’s vision seems to narrow rather, and he often focuses more on novelists and writers of fiction than travellers themselves, a side-track which, though occasionally enlightening, I found got in the way and led to gaps, and omissions of travellers I expected to encounter; his travellers became rather more exclusively British, too. I know one has to set boundaries somewhere, but again I found some choices more than a little curious. Things improved as we moved further into the twentieth century and writers such as Wilfred Thesiger, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Jan Morris received their due.

In sum: not an easy task by any means; a very useful survey and helpful bibliography, and I’d have liked a few more non-British travellers included.

Other Routes: 1500 Years of African & Asian Travel Writing

December 19, 2014

4167G5VQ1VL._AA160_I’ve just re-read this important and challenging anthology. Challenging, because it counters so many of the Eurocentric claims to have ‘discovered’ places, and been the first travellers to ‘explore’ somewhere, as if everyone else in the world just stayed put, cultivating their gardens…

It’s a well-edited anthology with an excellent, detailed, serious academic introduction which develops a clear context for the anthology: travellers from Africa and Asia, from China and Japan, from the Arab world, were all visiting new lands many centuries ago, and writing detailed and thoughtful accounts of the new things they found there, sometimes in a prejudiced and dismissive way, often in a very open-minded and wondering way.

It suffers from the obvious problems with all anthologies, that you never get enough of something you find really interesting, just small gobbets, tantalising but insufficient. And with this sort of writing, often newly ‘re-discovered’, tracking down further helpings can be either really difficult or completely impossible. Some ancient translations can be found via Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive, but a lot has never been translated into English (or any European language, for that matter). Certainly, there is plenty for me to try and hunt down and enjoy (probably in my next existence). The editors do, successfully, demonstrate the range and breadth of the travelling done in the centuries they cover.

So, many people travelled and explored and wrote intelligently and analytically whilst we in the West were in the midst of our ‘Dark Ages’ (whatever they really were); it’s a sobering and necessary reminder that, although we may now be in the ascendant (?) other peoples were once, and often our West was not part of their thoughts or their travels, either because they didn’t know about us, or because we were boring barbarians devoid of interest to intelligent people…

Times were different then, clearly, and often the writers do not touch upon the kinds of detail about foreign lands that I would find interesting, particularly in terms of their interactions with the indigenous peoples of the lands they visited. There are some brilliant glimpses – the Arab traveller who provides the only existing account of a Viking burial, probably somewhere in present-day Russia, thus also raising questions about the origins of the local populations; an angry Arab traveller ranting about how dreadful Cairo is, would give any negative reviewer in today’s Lonely Planet guides a run for their money; a fascinating perspective from an Indian traveller who visits London and Scotland. Of course, the usual suspects like Ibn Battutah and Leo Africanus also turn up.

Highly recommended if you want something completely different.

Reinventing the wheel, or recycling books…

November 20, 2014

As I’ve grown older I’ve become more aware that books are just as disposable as other items in our consumer culture, and don’t enjoy any special qualities as physical objects or, increasingly, in terms of their content. Lest that seem an incredibly sweeping statement, I’ll explain myself.

It seems each generation rewrites the books of previous generations. In science, technology and a few other fields, this rewriting reflects real advances in discovery. Sometimes in history, new documents shed new light, so some of the history written since the collapse of communism such as the books of Timothy Snyder or Norman Davies, to mention a couple of my favourites, does contain genuinely new and enlightening material. But otherwise it does seem as if writers are rehashing and re-presenting old wine in new bottles. How much does Ian Kershaw‘s work on Hitler add to Alan Bullock‘s, from the previous generation? How much does another history of the Reformation add to previous knowledge and analysis? I’ve appreciated Diarmaid MacCulloch‘s books, but what have they really added to Philip Hughes‘ books from fifty years ago?

It’s obviously more profitable to package and market new books rather than reprint the old ones. And new academics have to build their reputations and make a living. Research continues, but I do wonder just how much new stuff is really uncovered. A raft of new books on Jane Austen and Shakespeare appear each year; I used to be interested, but now I realise there’s precious little that’s new.

Novels are retranslated. I have really enjoyed, for example, the new translations of classic Russian novels by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, but if they hadn’t been done, I’d have been perfectly satisfied with the previous versions. Similarly with the new translation of Grass’ The Tin Drum: yes, it was good, but until then, I’d been fine with the original one. So what have we gained, really?

This feeling of re-inventing the wheel is often brought home to me as I – increasingly rarely – comb second-hand bookshops in search of – what? There, I often see thousands of ageing and crumbling books, fusty, mouldering and unloved, and unsellable: most of them will stay there until they disintegrate or are recycled, because nobody wants them, and we have conditioned ourselves to think that books are precious and we shouldn’t destroy them.

I wonder what this means for the future. Perhaps digital readers and e-books are a good thing, perhaps the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg are where it should be at. But the realisation that my treasured companions – my books, dammit – are consumer articles just like anything else, is rather too disturbing…

Out of Print…and into the ether?

September 22, 2013

People who know me know I read a lot. I love books, especially the printed kind. But I am not a luddite, and technology had brought new possibilities to my reading.

I bought a NOOK a year ago. I havered for ages about getting an e-reader, and couldn’t stomach being in hock to Amazon or being stuck with something with as daft a name as k*ndle. I don’t buy books for my NOOK. I discovered that a lot of the old books – especially travel-writing – that I could only buy at exorbitant secondhand or reprint prices (and don’t get me started on the quality of POD reprints) – are actually available free as pdf or epub files, having been digitised and made available on sites like the Internet Archive or Project Gutenberg. So I can download and read them free. If only it were that simple! I’ve discovered that anything digitised by g**gle has a fair chance of being garbled somewhere along the way, and has rarely been checked. Texts in older fonts don’t seem to scan well and are therefore riddled with errors and hard to read. Anything with footnotes is a nightmare, because these end up all over the place, and in the same size print and font as the body text, so often I don’t know where the hell I am.

I decided that these issues might be overcome on an e-reader with a larger screen – like A4 size? – but I don’t see anyone making one of those. And reading on a PC or a laptop is a pain because the page is the wrong shape. If anyone has any suggestions, I’m ready for them. But I’m persevering with my NOOK, and enjoying the free books.

Another thing I’ve discovered is audiobooks. Where the hell has this guy been? But free audiobooks, courtesy of the amazing Librivox website: there are now thousands of books available, read by volunteers, for download. And, if you speak French, there’s now a francophone equivalent site online. You can download files in various formats, and what originally got me interested was that I could burn the mp3 versions to CD and play them in the car on the way to work, or on other solitary long journeys.

Because they’re recorded by volunteers, they’re of variable quality. Some are, quite frankly, poor, but most of the ones I’ve listened to have been good to excellent – fantastic versions of many of Mark Twain’s books, for example, a brilliant version of The Wind in the Willows, a full version of St Augustine’s City of God, and lots more. Most are read by Americans, as the site is originally a US venture. Also, they only record out-of-copyright texts, which basically means pre-1923 US publication. And there’s a Librivox explanation recorded in at the start of each chapter: clearly one of the purposes of this is to put off rip-off merchants who might try to sell the recordings commercially. I think it’s a fantastic idea and I wish them every success. When I have time I intend to put a little back by volunteering to record for them.

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