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There are classics, there are best-sellers, there are reference books. There are, in fact, books of all sorts and they keep coming out. The best-sellers are on the charts for a few weeks or months and three years later, libraries begin deaccessioning them; they turn up on the lower shelves of thrift stores or in dollar-bins at used book stores. Classics keep getting published in ever newer editions and more up-to-date translations. (Reference books are being replaced by Wikipedia). 

But there is a class of books that often gets forgotten, and of which I am a particular aficionado: peculiar books. I realized this the other day when I picked up off my shelves — after many years of neglect — a volume of Voyage autour de ma chambre, or Voyage Around My Room by 18th Century author Xavier de Maistre. It is a travel book detailing the geography, geology, climate, economics and the art and culture of the author’s bedroom. It is written in the form and style of a standard travel book, and while its intentions may have been satiric or at least comic, de Maistre plays it straight all the way through. 

Its author was a military man who was placed under house arrest after illegally engaging in an “affair of honor,” or, in other words, a duel. He was cooped up in his room for 42 days and took the time to write his book, which he never really intended to be published. His older brother, Joseph de Maistre, however, got hold of it and had it printed in 1794 without Xavier’s knowledge. It became something of a minor literary sensation and was republished several times. 

“The walls of my room are hung with prints and paintings that greatly embellish it. I most sincerely wish I could let the reader examine them one by one, to amuse and distract him along the road that remains to be traveled before we reach my writing desk; but it is impossible to explain a painting clearly as it is to paint a faithful portrait on the basis of a description.” 

De Maistre goes off on many tangents. I love tangents; I always have. I remember once, when… well, maybe another time. 

My own library has its fair share of arcane and esoteric books. Contemporaneous with de Maistre is Denis Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist, another sort of travel book, although where Jacques and his master are traveling is never quite made clear. Through the book, the servant Jacques passes the time by telling many stories, most of them interrupted before they conclude. 

Then, there is The Travels of Ibn Battutah, an Arabic book from the 14th century in which its author travels through all the lands of the Dar al-Islam. He put on more than 70,000 miles in his wanderings, more than three times the distance traveled by Marco Polo. The full title of his book is A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling, but most just call it the “Travels.” 

Then there is The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. Published in 1702, it is as much haiku as prose, as the author travels by foot across northern Honshu, visiting shrines and literary sites. “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”

More facetious is George Chappell’s Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera, published in 1930, with illustrations by Otto Soglow. 

One of the most overwritten books I know, purple as any prose ever penned, is John C. Van Dyke’s The Desert, from 1903, a paean to his visit to the great American Southwest. For those who like this sort of thing, this is an utter and complete delight. It is difficult to quote him briefly; his charms are in his expatiation. He begins by talking about a group of mountains in the Colorado desert: “For days I have been watching them change color at sunset — watching the canyons shift into great slashes of blue and purple shadow, and the ridges flame with the edgings of glittering fire. They are lonesome looking mountains lying off there by themselves on the plain, so still, so barren, so blazing hot under the sun. Forsaken of their kind, one might not inappropriately call them the ‘Lost Mountains’ — the surviving remnant no doubt of some noble range that long centuries ago was beaten by wind and rain into desert sand.” 

To find language more garish, you would need to go to A Book of Clouds by William A. Quayle, from 1925, a series of black-and-white photographs layered with encomia and reminiscence. Writing about clouds and trees, he goes on: “In cloudy summer days the whole sense of the summer personality of a tree becomes manifest. The observer is not blinded by the light and not misled by the empyrean distance and height and azure. The tree stands as a picture hung and framed upon a gallery wall. It intrudes on you there. It seems to feel its own dignity and stands to have itself observed, the very picture of modest yet unashamed loveliness.” 

They are not all travel and nature, these oddities of publication. I have a copy of 1933’s Hoofbeats by the great cowboy actor William S. Hart. When retired from making movies, he wrote in his introduction, “You can’t see me on the screen any more and I do so yearn to be remembered,” and so he wrote a series of Western novels. Hoofbeats begins: “How the wind did lash the rain into our faces! The flashes of lightning were so brief that where you were quite sure you had seen solid ground, your feet would slide into a deep puddle. Then, too, my captors had bound my arms with a stout rope, and it was not easy to make headway against the storm.” 

I bought this tome many years ago while visiting Hart’s home, Horseshoe Ranch, in Newhall, Calif. The property was bequeathed to the state and is now William S. Hart Park and Museum. 

There are Indians as well. My late wife was besotted from childhood with American Indian stories and lore. She had a collection of arrowheads and stone axes. We had, at one point, a library of books on Native America that would have been the pride of a minor research facility. Most of them, we sold as a unit when we moved from Arizona to North Carolina. Among those we kept is James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees, first published in 1900. She used several of the spells and curses against her ex-husband. 

There are piles more oddities on the shelves. I don’t want to list them all. I should probably mention Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, an early exploration of depression and mental illness, wrapped up in Latin quotations and wild digressions, from 1621. Or the odd architectural book, framing memes and ideas in design and planning, called A Pattern Language. On a more risque side, there is Patrick Dennis’ Little Me, a fictional autobiography of a fictional dim-witted sex-bomb actress named Belle Poitrine. And Peter Fryer’s compendium of blue stockings, Mrs. Grundy: Studies in English Prudery

But it isn’t just arcane subject matter than interests me. Sometimes it is the titles alone that catch your interest. One of my favorite oddball books is George Leonard Herter’s Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, one of the looniest books ever to see ink. ((I’ve written about it elsewhere). He includes the Virgin Mary’s favorite recipe for spinach and the fact that she loved bagpipe music. Also, how to survive a nuclear bomb and the dangers of peppering your eggs. Herter wrote several other books, including How to Live with a Bitch

Titles can get quite involved. I learned music theory from Allen Irvine McHose’s The Contrapuntal Harmonic Technique of the 18th Century. I’ve collected books simply for their titles. Such as Phylogenetic and Morphological Problems of Taxonomy in Relation to Hominid Evolution and the immortal Design of Active-Site-Directed Irreversible Enzyme Inhibitors, by Bernard Baker. Everyone should have a copy, prominently placed in the living room bookshelf, just for the consternation of nosy houseguests digging through it. 

This interest in peculiar titles led me to search for others. I found dozens worthy of note. There is even an annual prize for the oddest book title, the “Bookseller/Diagram Prize,” which was first given out in 1978 and awarded to Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice. The following year, it went to The Madam as Entrepreneur: Career Management in House Prostitution

The organizers of the award soon realized a problem. Too many publishers were giving catchy and peculiar names to otherwise sane books to boost sales and, perhaps to get the coveted prize. One winning title was discovered to have been generated solely by algorithms: The 2009–2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais. The question was, should that be allowed in competition? 

The odd titles fall into three broad categories. First are the self-help books that need the extra boost from a catchy title. 

And so we have Bombproof Your Horse, which is really just a manual for training your horse not to get skittish at surprises. Then, there’s Outwitting Squirrels and The Beginner’s Guide to Animal Autopsy, which is a pretty-picture book about animal anatomy aimed at young audiences. Living with Scarves is self explanatory. All About Pockets is subtitled: “Storytime Activities for Early Childhood.” The catchy title is amusing, but there are more serious books, such as:

Deodorizing the Skunk by Surgery or Anyone Can Build a Tub-Style Mechanical Chicken Plucker, subtitled “Plucks Turkeys Geese and Ducks Too!” Farming with Dynamite was published by the DuPont company as “A Few Hints to Farmers.” Good-bye, Testicles, by Anne Welsh Guy, is a book to explain animal neutering to your child. 

Then there is the category of histories and explanatory manuals. They cover a great deal. One of the more alarming is May Chushman Rice’s Electricity in Gynecology. Charles Dobson offers the electrifying History of the Concrete Roofing Tile. I did not even know there was a Social History of the Machine Gun. How about the History of Thimbles

There’s also Anne Wilson’s The Book of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History, and Its Role in the World Today. And C.C. Stanley’s Highlights in the History of Concrete. Or Gregory Forth’s A Dog Pissing at the Edge of a Path: Animal Metaphors in Eastern Indonesian Society

A third category is titles from a bygone age, when the world was, well, different. Sometimes it is a change in language, which makes the old title mean something different now. Like Drummer Dick’s Discharge, a 1902 book by Beatrix M. De Burgh about a young soldier leaving the military. Which brings us to the 1713 book, The Symptoms, Nature, Cause and Cure of a Gonorrhoea, not funny in itself, except its author was William Cockburn.  

Among the older volumes is the Popular History of British Sea-Weeds. I would love to own a copy. Among outmoded ideas is J.W. Conway’s The Prevention and Correction of Left-Handedness in Children. Geoffrey Prout wrote a book called Scouts in Bondage. I have no idea. 

I want to throw out there a few other titles. In 1991, the U.K. published The Population of Great Britain Broken Down by Age and Sex. Ambiguity in action. In 1891, Captain John G. Bourke published Scatalogic Rites of All Nations. The title page warns “Not for general perusal.” 

In 1900, an episode in the Second Boer War was chronicled in Thrilling Experiences of the First British Woman Relieved by Lord Roberts. From 1856 comes Three Weeks in Wet Sheets: A Moist Visitor to Malvern

Lesbians get their own subsection, with Lesbian Sadomasochism Safety Manual by Pat Califia and The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories by Alisa Surkis and Monica Nolan.

And finally, a few last Bookseller/Diagram Prize winners. Unsolved Problems of Modern Theory of Lengthwise Rolling, by A.I Tselikov, S. Nikitin and E.S. Rokotyan — about rolling as a metalworking technique. 

Greek Rural Postmen and their Cancellation Numbers, by Derek Willan. Not a large audience for that one. Weeds in a Changing World by Charles H. Stirton. Designing High Performance Stiffened Structures. The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Strangers Have the Best Candy

Alan Stafford’s Too Naked for the Nazis is about the once-famous vaudeville act of Wilson, Keppel and Betty, which was denounced as “indecent” by Joseph Goebbels in 1936. 

There’s also Dentistry for the Deceased Annual 1974, Teach Your Wife to be a Widow, Help Lord — The Devil Wants Me Fat! and The Pop-Up Book of Phobias. Boo. 

The Bible says “Of making books there is no end.” The same for goofy books. If you have a favorite weird book or book title, please add them in the comment section. 

Click on any image to enlarge

D.H. Lawrence in Italy

“Comes over one an absolute necessity to move. And what is more, to move in some particular direction. A double necessity then: To get on the move and to know whither.”

The opening sentences of D.H. Lawrence’s 1921 travel book, Sea and Sardinia. It is one of my favorite sentences ever, first because it expresses an impulse I share, but mostly because of the odd inversion of word order and the way it replicates the order of the impulse hits. 

What I mean is that when such a feeling “comes over one,” it is first unnamed. You don’t originally understand what this need is, just that it rushes your emotions. It is only second that you identify what it is that you are thinking of. To run the sentence in normal order — “An absolute necessity to move comes over one”— implies you understand what it is when it hits. It is a two-part process and the first part is non-verbal, almost primordial. Word order matters.

Lawrence is largely unfashionable these days. His novels — those “bright books of life” — can feel dated. Certainly his phallo-centric worship seem bizarre. It’s hard to read “Lady Loverly’s Chatter” without without laughing, or at least gasping. Of course, it’s not his best book. (Fashion is untrustworthy; you should read one of his novels or short stories to see just how good he is, despite his preaching). 

But in addition to his fiction, Lawrence wrote about his travels and singular writings they are. Do not expect objective recitations of fact, but rather what is left after being filtered through the author’s distinct sensibility. This makes them both more interesting and relevant many decades after they were published. Many travel books are written; most drop out of date within years; a few — a very few — transcend time and place to become, dare I use the word, “literature.” 

Such books are a joy to read, and give you insight not so much into a destination as into how an active mind can interact and react with place and turn its air and soil into words. 

Lawrence wrote four such books. In addition to Sea and Sardinia, there is Twilight in Italy, Etruscan Places and Mornings in Mexico, which includes essays he wrote about New Mexico also and a beautiful encomium to the Hopi Snake Dance. 

“How is man to get himself into relation with the vast living convulsions of rain and thunder and sun, which are conscious and alive and potent, but like the vastest of beasts, inscrutable and incomprehensible? How is man to get himself into relation with these, the vastest of cosmic beasts?”

Such books go back into antiquity. Few books are as readable, or as revealing of their authors, as the Histories of Herodotus. While the book functions mainly as a history of the Persian Wars, in it our gentleman from Halicarnassus takes us everywhere from Egypt to India, serving up travel tidbits that may be true, may be lies, or may be simple misunderstandings. 

His story of ants in India the size of dogs that go into the desert and bring back gold could perhaps be a mistranslation of a word for marmot rather than ant, and a further misinterpretation of Himalayan marmots who dig into the sand and catch gold-bearing sand in their fur. He never says he actually saw such ants, but only heard travelers tell of them.

Herodotus is sometimes called the “father of lies,” but he is always lively. 

There are other classical travels, too, such as the Anabasis of Xenophon and the Description of Greece by Pausanius. Xenophon is pretty straightforward, but others, such as Ctesias of Cnidus stretched the credulity of their readers. Ctesias wrote a book about India, called Indica (existing now only in fragments, but quoted often by other authors), in which he describes such things as a race of men with only one leg, and whose feet are so huge they can be used as umbrellas. 

In the Second Century, Lucian of Samosata ridiculed such outlandish claims in a book he called “A True Story,” in which he reported on “things I have neither seen nor experienced nor heard tell of from anybody else; things, what is more, that do not in fact exist and could not ever exist at all. So my readers must not believe a word I say.” In this, he says, he is therefore much truer than such liars as Ctesias or Herodotus because he admits his tales are all lies from the get-go. 

The most famous of questionable travel books is certainly Livre des Merveilles du Monde or “The Book of the Marvels of the World,” also called the Travels of Marco Polo, which appeared in the late 13th Century. (I say “appeared” rather than “was published” because there is no authoritative version. It sprung up in many languages in many countries at the same time, often with conflicting content.) It was ostensibly compiled by a Venetian hack writer named Rustichello of Pisa who shared a prison cell with Marco Polo in Genoa and transcribed Polo’s tales of his travels to China. 

The trustworthiness of Polo’s Travels has been questioned since it first appeared. Parts of it are surprisingly accurate, geographically and historically, but other sections are cribbed from other books written by Rustichello, ripped whole-cloth from his popular fictions. Scholars have been arguing over the book for hundreds of years. 

It is, however, and despite some tedious repetition, a good read, which is why it came out in six different languages and 20 different editions in just a few years. 

The discovery of the New World led to many journals, books and manuals. Perhaps the most famous is now just called “Hakluyt’s Voyages,” and was published in 1589 by Englishman Richard Hakluyt. His many books informed William Shakespeare’s sense of the world and its peoples. 

The title of his principal work is nearly a book all by itself. There was a fashion for long, descriptive titles back then. For instance, what we now call Shakespeare’s King Lear, was first known as the “True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three Daughters, With the unfortunate life of Edgar, sonne and heire to the Earle of Gloster, and his sullen and assumed humor of Tom of Bedlam: As it was played before the Kings Majestie at Whitehall upon S. Stephans night in Christmas Hollidayes.”

And so, Hakluyt, not to be outdone, titled his travel book: The Principall Navigations, Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation: Made by Sea or Over Land to the Most Remote and Farthest Distant Quarters of the Earth at Any Time within the Compasse of These 1500 Years: Divided into Three Several Parts According to the Positions of the Regions Whereunto They Were Directed; the First Containing the Personall Travels of the English unto Indæa, Syria, Arabia … the Second, Comprehending the Worthy Discoveries of the English Towards the North and Northeast by Sea, as of Lapland … the Third and Last, Including the English Valiant Attempts in Searching Almost all the Corners of the Vaste and New World of America … Whereunto is Added the Last Most Renowned English Navigation Round About the Whole Globe of the Earth.

And that’s why we now call it “Hakluyt’s Voyages.”

But it is in the 18th Century that travel writing went mainstream. It was the era of the Enlightenment, and learning about the other quarters of the globe became a part of what we were enlightening ourselves about. Scores of travel diaries and memoirs were published. 

Samuel Johnson wrote A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, which is about a country he had little affinity for, and his sidekick, James Boswell wrote about the same trip in his The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL. D. Johnson wrote about Scotland; Boswell wrote about Johnson. In one notable episode, they extolled a hearty dinner consisting entirely of cold butter and milk. Yum. 

Novelist Tobias Smollett wrote a popular Travels Through France and Italy, published in 1766, which is not much read these days, but in contrast, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, by Laurence Sterne, is a classic. Smollett didn’t much cotton to foreign ways and pretty well grumped his way through the Continent. Sterne, in his book, from 1768, took a much more amiable view. Sterne actually crossed paths with  Smollett in Italy, and satirized him and his pique as the character Smelfungus. 

HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan

In 1839, Charles Darwin published what is now known as The Voyage of the Beagle, which was his portion of the scientific and geographical expedition of the H.M.S. Beagle around South America and into the Pacific. 

The trip provided Darwin with much of the data that led to his theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. But much of the book is just a good read, with the author’s reactions to what he discovers. 

Bahia jungle

In mid-summer the ship stopped at Bahia in Brazil. Darwin wrote: “The day has past delightfully. Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest. The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage, but above all the general luxuriance of the vegetation, filled me with admiration. A most paradoxical mixture of sound and silence pervades the shady parts of the wood. The noise from the insects is so loud, that it may be heard even in a vessel anchored several hundred yards from the shore; yet within the recesses of the forest a universal silence appears to reign. To a person fond of natural history, such a day as this brings with it a deeper pleasure than he can ever hope to experience again.”

Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft

In 1844, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, published her Rambles in Germany and Italy, in 1840, 1842, and 1843. The book combines memoir with political analysis and was widely praised at the time. 

It followed the path taken by her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark in 1796. In it, Wollstonecraft wrote that “The art of travel is only a branch of the art of thinking.” And she wrote that travel writers should have “some decided point in view, a grand object of pursuit to concentrate their thoughts, and connect their reflections.”

Mark Twain in the Holy Land

It is the point of view that distinguishes travel literature from mere travel writing. And you get that in spades in four books by Mark Twain. He published The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress in 1869 about a trip he took two years earlier to the Holy Land, with side excursions all through the Mediterranean. It was his best-selling book during his lifetime.  And the source of one of his most famous quotes:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

He followed it up a few years later with Roughing It, an account of his travels and travails in Nevada and California. Then in 1880, he followed with A Tramp Abroad, which details a trip he made through Germany and the Alps. In it, he included a screamingly funny pasquinade on the Teutonic tongue, called “The Awful German Language.” 

For instance, linguistic gender baffled him. “Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in distribution; … In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.”

Finally, he went around the world, including to Hawaii and and India, and wrote about the trip in Following the Equator, published in 1897. The heat in India got to him: “I believe that in India ‘cold weather’ is merely a conventional phrase and has come into use through the necessity of having some way to distinguish between weather which will melt a brass door-knob and weather which will only make it mushy.”

I wish I could mention all the wonderful and quirky travel books I have read: Travels with a Donkey by Robert Louis Stevenson; The Alhambra by Washington Irving; Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (yes, it’s a travel book, of sorts). 

And those I wish I had read: A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling by Ibn Battuta; Through the Brazilian Wilderness by Theodore Roosevelt; Travels With Myself and Another: A Memoir by Martha Gelhorn (the “other” is Ernest Hemingway); The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara. 

But there are finally three more that I have read and recommend to everyone: 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Matsuo Basho, which recounts a journey he made, mostly on foot, around the wilder parts of the north of Japan in the spring of 1689. It is a haibun, a combination of prose and poetry — mainly haiku — and functions as both a travel diary and a poetry anthology. It also has profound things to say about life, time and consciousness.

“Months and days are travelers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float off on ships or who grow ancient leading horses are also forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them.”

Voyage autour de ma chambre (“Voyage Around My Room”), published in 1794 by French writer Xavier de Maistre. He wrote it while under house arrest, and managed to turn his confinement into a pilgrimage, as he wandered around the room, 36 paces in circumference. 

“I have just completed a 42-day voyage around my room. The fascinating observations I made and the endless pleasures I experienced along the way made me wish to share my travels with the public; and the certainty of having something useful to offer convinced me to do so. Words cannot describe the satisfaction I feel in my heart when I think of the infinite number of unhappy souls for whom I am providing a sure antidote to boredom and a palliative to their ills. … 

“When I travel through my room,” he writes, “I rarely follow a straight line: I go from the table towards a picture hanging in a corner; from there, I set out obliquely towards the door; but even though, when I begin, it really is my intention to go there, if I happen to meet my armchair en route, I don’t think twice about it, and settle down in it without further ado.” 

—Finally, I want to offer George S. Chappell’s 1930 Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera: A Fascinating Trip to the Interior. The title seems self-explanatory, but the book antedates Raquel Welch’s breakout film Fantastic Voyage by three and a half decades. 

Our hero, along with an ornithologist, botanist and cameraman, first enter the mouth, do some spelunking and climb the cliffs of the molars. As they explore the innards of the human corpus, they escape from an enraged Amoeba, and discover the Heeby-Geebies that infest the Nerve Forests of the Lumbar region. Pausing only to carve their initials on the spinal column, the four brave souls reach Lovely Livermore and search for the source of the river Bile. Scarcely have they had time to shoot the rapids at the conjunction of the Gall and the Spleen and view the dance of the Hemoglobins when a violent upset in the interior forcibly ejects them.

What can I say? It isn’t only travel that is fatal to bigotry, but so is reading, especially reading about travel.