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The Best American Travel Writing #21
Best american travel writing 2020, jason wilson ( editor ) , robert macfarlane ( editor ).
336 pages, Paperback
First published November 3, 2020
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The best american travel writing, "the beauty of good writing is that it transports the reader inside another person’s experience in some other physical place and culture, at its best, evokes a palpable feeling of being in a specific moment in time and space.” - padma lakshmi.
The essays in this year’s Best American Travel Writing are an antidote to the isolation of the year 2020, giving us views into experiences unlike our own and taking us on journeys we could not take ourselves. From the lively music of West Africa, to the rich culinary traditions of Muslims in Northwest China, to the thrill of a hunt in Alaska, this collection is a treasure trove of diverse places and cultures, providing the comfort, excitement, and joy of feeling elsewhere.
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Rick Steves Wants to Set You Free Sam Anderson 1
From The New York Times Magazine
On the Road with Thomas Merton Fred Bahnson 20
From Emergence Magazine
If You Are Permanently Lost Molly McCully Brown 42
From The Paris Review
Life, Death, and the Border Patrol Jackie Bryant 47
The Volunteer's Dilemma Ken Budd 49
From The Washington Post Magazine
My Own Private Iceland Kyle Chayka 61
Revisiting My Grandfather's Garden Mojgan Ghazirad 78
To the Follower of Cheikh Bamba Whom I Met in Dakar Emmanuel Iduma 88
From Off Assignment
How to Mourn a Glacier Lacy M. Johnson 91
From The New Yorker
Chloé Cooper Jones. Such Perfection 97
From The Believer
What I Learned in Avalanche School Heidi Julavits 111
Glow James Lasdun 128
To Hold Oneself Together Yiyun Li 141
From T: The New York Times Style Magazine
The Last of the Great American Hobos Jeff MacGregor 151
The Trillion-Dollar Nowhere Ben Mauk 166
My Father's Land Courtney Desiree Morris 186
From Stranger's Guide
At the Border, No One Can Know Your Name Alejandra Oliva 201
The Shape of Water Stephanie Pearson 212
Who Lives in Palermo Is Palermo Ashley Powers 224
From Airbnb Magazine
Climate Signs Emily Raboteau 233
From The New York Review of Books
Walking with Migrants Paul Salopek 263
From National Geographic
Lost in Summerland Barrett Swanson 271
From The Atavist Magazine
Vacation Memories Marred by the Indelible Stain of Racism Shanna B. Tiayon 296
Contributors' Notes 304
Notable Travel Writing of 2019 309
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What the End of The Best American Travel Writing Says About Travel Writing—And About America
Thomas swick on the uncertain future of a durable genre.
Every fall for the last 22 years has seen the arrival of The Best American Travel Writing , part of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s series of anthologies that include, among others, The Best American Essays and The Best American Short Stories . The inaugural edition in 2000 was inexplicably late—coming a good decade after the close of travel writing’s heyday—but nevertheless welcome in a genre that, unlike food writing, never had a widely recognized prize. Being included in The Best American Travel Writing was worth half a dozen Lowell Thomas awards. Plus, it gave your story a second life between covers.
Those first anthologies were thick hardcovers that eventually devolved into thin paperbacks. The 2001 edition, guest edited by Paul Theroux, had 418 pages; this year’s, with Padma Lakshmi in the guest editor’s chair, had 265. Admittedly, 2020 was not a good year for travel writing, but the very existence of The Best American Travel Writing 2021 is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of the genre.
The genre is more durable than the series, which the publisher, now part of HarperCollins, has decided to discontinue after this year. The move is based not on a drop in travel writing’s quality, or even quantity, but rather its increasing inability to attract a large audience (which explains the marquee guest editor this year). Series editor Jason Wilson, in an interview with Jeremy Bassetti on the podcast Travel Writing World, said that recent editions didn’t sell nearly as well as early editions had. This includes The Best American Travel Writing 2020 , which came out in the middle of a pandemic (with stories written before it)—the perfect moment, one would think, for armchair travel.
Travel writing is not the only series to fall victim to indifference— The Best American Sports Writing was discontinued after last year’s edition (prompting Triumph Books to come out this fall with The Year’s Best Sports Writing )—but this blow is particularly disheartening for a genre that has gradually and, for those of us who love it, mystifyingly lost its allure.
Granted, it has suffered its share of attacks in recent years. Critics have flagged it with the taint of neo-colonialism and accused it of cultural appropriation, but they have mostly been academics, who don’t exert great influence on the reading public. And they have been answered eloquently by people like Colin Thubron, who, in an interview in the Financial Times , noted that, far from wishing to “impose” themselves, most travel writers try to understand, and learn from, the countries they visit. “If you regard every relationship as a power relationship,” he cautioned, “you descend into paranoia.”
The genre has even received criticism from within its own ranks, as some travel writers have questioned the time-honored goal of “traveling like a local,” finding it self-delusional and, if taken literally, counterproductive—the argument being that most people, even those residing in stellar locales, lead lives of boring repetition, what the French have summarized as “ métro, boulot, dodo .” Never mind that a detailed account of subway commuting, Parisian office politics (think Call My Agent! ), and, well, not sleep, but French home life would paint a more accurate and amusing portrait of the capital than a story on museums and Michelin-starred restaurants.
A greater contributor to travel writing’s drop in popularity is of course the Internet, that infinite, ever-expanding archive of everything. Google your destination and it appears on your screen, in words and pictures. Who needs travel writers, one might ask, when hundreds of bloggers are typing their findings, thousands of tourists are posting their videos, millions of vacationers are sending their tweets?
Yet most people go to the Internet for information, not insight, or what John Cheever called “a page of good prose”—both of which fine travel writers provide. They too can be found online—it’s where I read the Thubron interview—but they’re not prominent residents there. The Internet, at least the non-pictorial part, is more about utility than it is about pleasure.
One of the main reasons readers of travel writing have faded away—in this country, anyway—is the decades-long trend of America turning inward. The genre still does well in the UK, where one publisher, Eland Books, specializes in reprints of travel classics. But the United Kingdom is a small island (with a long travel writing tradition) at the edge of a large and influential continent; the United States is a behemoth unto itself.
That travel writing ever had a golden age here may seem a bit strange, but publishers in the 1980s—excited by the successes of Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar and Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia —competed with each other over travel books; a few started imprints devoted entirely to them. Jan Morris wrote penetrating portraits of places for Rolling Stone and Banana Republic came out with a short-lived travel magazine, Trips , that was sold in its stores’ slightly longer-lived travel bookshops. For writers starting out in the ’80s, travel writing appeared as a promising career.
But soon the travel book was eclipsed by the memoir. Its reign produced its own instant classics—Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life , Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club —and suggested a growing fascination with the personal and the familial. This preoccupation grew even stronger after 9/11, an event that, instead of motivating us to become more globally aware, somehow made us even more introspective. The new century brought a slew of memoirs about common human experiences: illness, grief, dysfunction, abuse, addiction. Joan Didion, who in the ’80s wrote Salvador and Miami (focusing on the city’s Cuban exile community), published books about the deaths of her husband and daughter. It was a natural turn for an aging author, but it felt like an official confirmation of our retreat from the world into the self.
Immigrant memoirs have appeared—like Dina Nayeri’s The Ungrateful Refugee and Phuc Tran’s Sigh, Gone —giving us outsiders’ views of our home ( enough about us, what do you think about us? ), but there has been no corresponding wave of books about Americans abroad. This has at least kept at a minimum vapid accounts of idylls in Tuscany and Provence. And the number of published books that are works of translation has stayed at a dismal three percent. The general feeling among publishers is that most people would rather identify with what they read than learn about something outside their own experience. And in a country where less than half of the population owns a passport, this means concentrating on the personal and the parochial.
Yet our self-absorbed republic is producing more world travelers than ever; back in travel writing’s heyday, less than 10 percent of Americans had passports. So despite our solipsistic tendencies—or actually owing to them—travel writing theoretically should be enjoying a boom, especially when you consider that travelers and readers are often one in the same.
But like the Internet, travel’s growth has created the impression that travel writer is a superannuated profession—the Age of Overtourism’s blacksmith. Together, the two modern developments have created a world in which everything is accessible and almost nothing seems foreign. Why should people depend on some stranger’s impressions of a country when they can go out and gather their own? Unfortunately, few of them bring to their journeys the preparation and research, the knowledge and experience, the perceptive eye and the analytical mind and the inquisitive spirit of a gifted travel writer.
What’s especially frustrating about the decline in popularity of travel writing is that it has never been better, thanks in part to technology, one of the forces that seems to work against it. Seeing the increase in the number of travelers, and their easy access to the Internet, travel writers realized that it was no longer enough just to describe a place, or meet its inhabitants; they had to excavate its meanings. As a result, the work they produced became richer, deeper, and infinitely more expansive. And, in many cases, it borrowed elements from the memoir.
This approach was not new; V.S. Naipaul brought history, analysis, and introspection (three words not usually associated with blogging) to his first travel book, The Middle Passage , in 1962. Jonathan Raban used the same tools for Old Glory and Hunting Mister Heartbreak , two books that, because they’re about the U.S., show us better than most the educational and entertainment value of the canny observer. More recently, writers as diverse as Pico Iyer, Sara Wheeler, Tom Bissell, and Robert Macfarlane have quietly stretched the boundaries of the genre. The Long Field , by the American writer Pamela Petro, is a beautiful examination of her love affair with Wales that brilliantly explores the ideas of home, loss, language, sexuality, and of course love.
It’s labeled a memoir, and published in Britain.
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The Best American Travel Writing 2020 with Jason Wilson
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Every year, Jason Wilson compiles the best examples of travel writing published in the previous year and publishes them in The Best American Travel Writing anthology .
Jason last joined us to talk about the coronavirus pandemic and the future of travel writing back in April. Now he’s back to talk about The Best American Travel Writing 2020 (Mariner Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2020).
But Jason also gives us a glimpse into the process of editing the anthology, some updated thoughts on the state and future of travel writing during the pandemic, and some reflections on the genre of travel writing.
Jason Wilson is the author of several other books like Cider Revival: Dispatches from the Orchard (2019), Godforsaken Grapes (2018), and Boozehou nd (2010).
Learn more about Jason and his work on his website .
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Last Updated on 30 March 2021 by Travel Writing World
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Jeremy is Editor of Travel Writing World and the host of the Travel Writing World podcast.
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The Best American Travel Writing 2020
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The year’s best travel writing, as chosen by series editor Jason Wilson and guest editor Robert Macfarlane. Writing, reading, and dreaming about travel have surged, writes Robert MacFarlane in his introduction to the Best American Travel Writing 2020. From an existential reckoning in avalanche school, to an act of kindness at the Mexican-American border, to a moral dilemma at a Kenyan orphanage, the journeys showcased in this collection are as spiritual as they are physical. These stories provide not just remarkable entertainment, but also, as MacFarlane says, deep comfort, “carrying hope, creating connections, transporting readers to other-worlds, and imagining alternative presents and alternative futures.” The Best American Travel 2020 includes HEIDI JULAVITS • YIYUN LI • PAUL SALOPEK • LACY JOHNSON • EMMANUEL IDUMA • JON MOOALLEM • EMILY RABOTEAU and others
More Books Like This
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The Best American Travel Writing 2020
“The Shape of Water,” from Outside magazine, is anthologized in the 2020 edition of The Best American Travel Writing, edited by Robert Macfarlane and Jason Wilson.
View online article here »
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The Best American Travel Writing 2020
The year’s best travel writing, as chosen by series editor Jason Wilson and guest editor Robert Macfarlane.
Writing, reading, and dreaming about travel have surged, writes Robert MacFarlane in his introduction to the Best American Travel Writing 2020 . From an existential reckoning in avalanche school, to an act of kindness at the Mexican-American border, to a moral dilemma at a Kenyan orphanage, the journeys showcased in this collection are as spiritual as they are physical. These stories provide not just remarkable entertainment, but also, as MacFarlane says, deep comfort, “carrying hope, creating connections, transporting readers to other-worlds, and imagining alternative presents and alternative futures."
The Best American Travel 2020 includes: HEIDI JULAVITS • YIYUN LI • PAUL SALOPEK • LACY JOHNSON • EMMANUEL IDUMA • JON MOOALLEM • EMILY RABOTEAU and others
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