Isn’t every book a travel book? There you are in your sad little living room — the rug needs a vacuum, the dog’s barking at the neighbour, and dear God who the hell’s crying for a sandwich? You scrunch down deeper into the couch, and start to think about those absentees who briefly appear in the first chapter of a Coming of Age novel. Oh you know the ones: ‘My father went out one night for a pack of cigarettes and never returned.’
Now that may not be a good option for most of us, although I do keep both a lighter and a blackmarket passport in my laptop case because you just never know. Much easier and infinitely less likely to involve Interpol is to escape the drudgery by opening a book. People, even family members who sort of qualify as people, at least hesitate before interrupting reading. It’s rather like prayer: ‘Could you dry the dishes – oh! – I didn’t realize you were talking to God.’ Watching television is being a lazy lump – reading is improving your mind.
So if travel is a way of changing your dull physical environment, reading is traveling out of your even duller mental environment. I suspect this is why so many of the great authors have written formal travel books at some point or points in their careers. Graham Greene was a master of the form, as is the man who is in some ways his descendant Paul Theroux. Twain did it, Dickens did it, even James Bond’s Ian Fleming did it: Let’s do it! Let’s pack a bag!
In that spirit, I was instantly curious when I ran across a reference to A Journey into Dorothy Parker’s New York while I was looking up a quote or two from the great Dorothy Parker. I am a massive fan of hers; frankly she is both my favourite reviewer and humorist of all time. Each fed the other by the way. Because she was a theatre and book reviewer, she knew where to find the telling details that can create a word picture for readers. Because she was funny, she knew how to make those word pictures entertaining.
I could go on about Mrs. Parker forever yet I will restrain myself to one last paragraph, here in the form of two Did You Knows? Did You Know: That among various phrases whose invention are attributed to include – chocolate bar, face-life, what the hell, and daisy chain…the sexual kind. (A friend of mine didn’t know about the latter, looked it up on Google and made the entertaining error of clicking Images. You are forewarned.) And finally, Did You Know that Dorothy Parker left her entire estate when she passed away in 1967 at the age of 74 to Dr. Martin Luther King, whom she never met but greatly admired? When Dr. King was assassinated her estate, including all royalties, passed to the NAACP. In choosing literary heroes, you could make worse picks.
Hell, I would have.
My interest so peaked, I looked up the publisher of Kevin C. Patrick’s book — the cheerily named Roaring Forties Press — and found that they have an ArtPlace Series of these travel guides. They aren’t just based on authors: others include A Journey into Matisse’s South of France, the Transcendentalist’s New England, and the just-released Elvis Presley’s Memphis. Having read two of them, I feel safe in vouching for the whole collection.
Packed into 150 pages and spread amongst maps, pictures, and off-set quotes is a surprisingly full textual biography. One actually learns things. For instance, in R. Todd Felton’s A Journey into Ireland’s Literary Revival (the apostrophe in my last name is a dead giveaway as to why I chose that one), I realized that despite many years spent doodling in the margins of academia, I had never truly appreciated what a colossus William Butler Yeats was in terms of Ireland’s development of a culture beyond the stereotype of a drunken farmer stumbling about with a pig under his arm. Granted when James Joyce met Yeats, as Felton recounts, Joyce sniffed, ‘I have met you too late. You’re too old.’ yet that was the exception that proved the rule. Yeats was a man to be sought out and he didn’t mind the seeking, whether it was from Joyce, John Synge or Sean O’Casey. Yeats was in such national esteem that he was elected to the Republic’s first Senate. I defy any poet to stand for Senatorial election today in the English-speaking world without being laughed out of the room.
I dare say that these neat, square-shaped books have lit the lamp that draws the travel bug. They can supply the theme to a pleasing journey. For after all, what does a tourist actually do? Generally, we check into a hotel, venture out as far as a two-block circle, eat something unusual, drink the local wine, then pretend that we now know the whole thing. I now want to go to the Aran Islands and hear a story that might have ignited Synge or to sit in the Algonquin Hotel lobby, close me eyes and hear someone say something as sharply witty as Dorothy Parker.
Yes you’re right, I may well doze off before the latter happens. But it will be such a lovely nap of dreams.
Be seeing you.
Hubert O’Hearn has been a newspaper columnist and arts reviewer for the past fifteen years. From their beginning in Thunder Bay Ontario, Canada, his book reviews have grown to include ten publications across North America. He is also available to perform his lively and humorous discussion of books – A Book and a Martini Live! – in support of charitable causes. Always appreciative of comments and book suggestions, he can be reached email@example.com . An archive of Hubert O’Hearn’s work is housed atbythebookreviews.blogspot.com.