Honestly, is there anything more annoying than seeing endless Facebook posts of your friends’ summer vacation moments? There’s co-worker Hilda smiling in front of Old Faithful, and there’s cousine Jolene’s margarita at a bar in Cabo and let’s not forget Nate, who’s pretending to prop up the Leaning Tower of Pisa—like no one’s ever tried that before.
So yes, let’s forget about Nate and all these timeworn travel clichés, powered by the terminally reductive forces of social media which threaten to shrink the world for the enrichment of Mark Zuckerberg but to the intellectual peril of the rest of us. That’s because travel is not about photo contests or keeping up with the Kardashians or checking the status of your “bucket list” like you would the level of antifreeze under the hood. Travel is about hardship, oscillations between extremes of comfort and poverty and about broadening your mind, not waving around a selfie stick like some kind of drunken wombat. Travel starts where the apps stop, and it often begins with a book.
If that sounds a bit bitter actually it’s the opposite, which also applies to a slim but indispensable traveler’s tome called Bitter Lemons by the great British novelist Lawrence Durrell and first published in 1957. This is a vivid account of life on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus in the mid-1950s, in the tumultuous run-up to the country’s independence from Great Britain and subsequent Turkish invasion. Durrell describes a vanished world that still tantalizes. Far from dry or arcane, his pages devoted to the purchase of a country house on Cyprus are dense with ancient truths and so hysterical they put similar efforts by writers like David Sedaris to shame.
Moving on up to the present, a book called Far and Away by the distinguished writer Andrew Solomon caught my weary summer eye. The thick book is a compilation of the writer’s “reports from the brink of change” spanning seven continents and 25 years. These essays, mostly reprints from the likes of The New York Times Magazine, Harpers & Queen and others, offer richly perceptive portraits of locales ranging from Moscow to Zambia by way of Ghana, Afghanistan, China, Mongolia, Taiwan, Greenland, the USA and more. Solomon’s introductory chapter, “Dispatches from Everywhere” is great mostly for what it is not – in other words, not another hackneyed Lonely Planet co-branded blog post but an unapologetically Marco Polo-esque mini-manifesto on the imperative of travel in a fraught time with the reminder that for the young especially, travel is sometimes the best kind of education. You’ll find all the artfully crafted sentences you would expect from a president of the PEN American Center plus copious insights, and you can secretly revel in the fact that this isn’t another unnecessary travel book by Morgan Freeman-of-the-travel-scribe-trade Pico Iyer.
When your passport pages start to sag under the weight of all those passport stamps and the thought of standing in yet another airport security line quite frankly makes you want to vomit, it’s just another reason to turn back the clock and let your mind do the wandering. While dusting off some old suitcases–remember when they didn’t have wheels?–I happened upon some old issues of Horizon, the great American hard-bound magazine that was published from 1958 to 1989. These are treasures, with writing more erudite than anything you’ll find, I guarantee you, in the pages of National Geographic or The Atlantic. In a single issue you could learn about the voices in Joan of Arc’s head, or the books Shakespeare read, or what Napoleon said. Lushly illustrated. I delved into an article about Hellenistic culture and the lasting impact of the great Greek playwrights as a function of the flowering of Athenian democracy.
You might never expect that a writer like Edmund White was at one time an editor at Horizon, but lo and behold he was. He’s also got a new novel out. Called Our Young Man, it traces the trajectory of a French guy (named Guy) who becomes the crème de la crème of the modeling world in late ‘70s New York City – a febrile time in Gotham by any measure. The tale necessarily involves Fire Island, a spit of land ultimately incomprehensible to any Californian sensibility, and largely inferior too, but one with a cultural impact that can’t be denied. Fire Island is where I once crossed paths with White and his famous sense of mischief was on full display; we knew some of the same self-important and sometimes self-declared travel writers living in Paris and his skewering of them was better than any barbecue. I expect his latest is a fine read for the beach.
One more. I can’t remember how many Broadway shows I’ve seen recently because most are so forgettable. I’m not into Hamilton or sundry re-imaginings of American history; frankly we don’t have very much so what we’ve got we better just get right. After all, do you see the Greeks tampering with their classics? Of course not. And have you read any of them since high school? A new book will give you reason to: Penguin Random House’s impending release of Mary Lefkowitz and James Romm’s The Greek Plays is already causing a stir. The book features new translations of 16 of the most famous Greek tragedies, so if you’ve been planning to brush up on your Euripides, Sophocles and so on, now you can do it with a single, slick volume. How suitcase-friendly is that?
Are you still here? in case you were wondering…