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Vicarious travels: On the travel writing genre

Upon arriving at Waterstones there is one section we tend to flock to: fiction. We crave the idea of losing ourselves in others’ stories, travelling into our imagination. Whilst I’m an aficionado for the fictional, in recent months I’ve come across a new genre that allows us to explore the amazing and varied world we live in and follow the stories of real people’s adventures and experiences, of people’s subjective and varying experiences when travelling across the globe.

I’m now a strong advocate for the modern travel genre, and have a few recommendations for reading over the winter break.

Travel writing encompasses so many styles and sub-genres – the common characteristic is simply to give a new perspective on life, through stories of new places and cultures. It isn’t simply recommendations of where to go and what to see, like promotional travel magazines, but rather tales of real people going out and seeing the world.

There is so much to see in the world; so much beauty, geographically and in humanity. It’s out there waiting, and travel writers make it more accessible for us. They inspire us to want to travel somewhere either completely different or closer to home based on their intriguing experiences. Travel writing is also a way to recollect the memories of a place you’ve already visited and to see a new side to it from somebody else’s eyes – an unseen characteristic, an unvisited setting or a delicacy not yet tasted.

Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr takes the form of a memoir about a year-long trip the American author made from his hometown in Idaho to live in Rome with his wife and newborn twin boys. He writes vividly about the sights, smells, feelings and moments he experiences living in Italy, trying to learn the language, completing a new novel and taking care of two baby boys. This proves difficult as he navigates the chaos and the wonders of the capital, with the story split into four chapters reflecting transition through four seasons.

When reading Four Seasons In Rome I was enveloped into the workings of Doerr’s mind. I gained a glimpse of his thought processes, visions and ideas coupled with the clear descriptions of the beauty of the city; from the immense to the miniscule. I was so easily transported to Rome through the book. I finished each chapter feeling refreshed; my mind clear and inspired by the setting and the way in which Doerr chooses to represent his experiences in the space of Rome.

Next is a more famous book; Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Reconstructed into a film starring Julia Roberts (which I admit I still need to see and judge in comparison to the book), Eat, Pray, Love is a monumental piece of travel writing. It tells the autobiographical story of Gilbert getting divorced and deciding to travel to the three countries she is most fascinated about: Italy, India and Indonesia.

The memoir is split into three parts, each country encompassing a third of the title, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. In Italy she practices the art of enjoying food and good company, and in India she works on her own spirituality and sense of self. (On the problematics of which there are words to be said). In Bali, Indonesia, she tries to find a balance between enjoyment and self restriction, and learns to love again.

Gilbert’s vivid style of writing is honest. She relays emotions and adventures in three countries with completely different life philosophies and social norms. She writes of struggles, heartbreak, discoveries, and the places that mould her soul and allow her to start life over with a new outlook. It is inspirational and I can see why it remained on the New York Times Bestseller list for over 200 weeks.

For me, travel writing is a gift to the soul and imagination. It inspires and takes you on a journey of discovery, without needing to set foot on a plane or train. Through incredible writers like Doerr and Gilbert, and a whole host more, the world really is at our fingertips. Travel writing gives us access to the world’s wonders, and learning through other people’s journeys can teach us a thing or two about life itself.

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Tags: anthony Doerr, Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert, four seasons, travel, travel writing

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