The Books Briefing: What the Best Travel Writing Can Do

The most enduring works in the genre offer far more than practical guidance: Your weekly guide to the best in books

An illustration of a sailboat riding waves drawn by a pen
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Joe Sanderson arrived in El Salvador as a white American traveler with ambitions of writing a novel. But during his journey, he became something else entirely: a revolutionary, fully enmeshed in the culture he’d set out to document. The journalist Héctor Tobar’s The Last Great Road Bum chronicles this transformation, interrupting Sanderson’s real journal entries with commentary from Tobar. The resulting work sharply questions the nature of travel narratives and what people owe to the places they visit.

Readers often look to travel writing for practical information, but the strongest offerings in the genre do so much more. Take, for example, the writers of the New Deal–era American Guides, who sped through any useful advice on where to stay and instead delved into oddities of local lore. In doing so, they offered a diversity of compelling lenses through which to understand the country and its inhabitants. Many modern writers situate their work within the context of climate change, encouraging readers to consider how environmental factors shape the places they visit. Barry Lopez brings these concerns to the forefront in his book Horizon, which emphasizes the existential threat of the climate crisis. The threat is also present in Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, a pioneering “swimmoir,” which followed the author’s efforts to swim in bodies of water across the U.K.—even the most polluted. The book encourages readers to confront the sadness of what humans have done to the environment and take up responsibility to protect and restore what remains.

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma considers the instability not only of the environment, but also of the traveler. When Obioma’s protagonist, a poor Nigerian farmer, journeys to Cyprus, he is met with racism and other unjust treatment. The novel demonstrates the vulnerability—for both places and people—that pervades the most enduring kinds of travel narratives.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading


The Atlantic

Life on the road is more than inspiration for your novel
“The bigness of the world and the many lives one can live is humbling, dumbfounding. Still travel, very often, can be self-serving. You are gone the next day. You can learn a lot from living on the road, but life on the road is so demanding that it can be hard to lift your head past the horizon of the highway stripe. When everything is up for grabs, you are busy living it. Travel lends itself to self-reflection more than action.”

📚 The Last Great Road Bum, by Héctor Tobar

book covers of "The American Guides"

Addie Borchert

The rich, weird, and frustrating world of Depression-era travel guides
“The spirit of the guides, in other words, is multitudinous and democratic—they have a fundamentally public orientation to match the public enterprise that created them. They don’t offer one way of looking at a state but several. They contain many voices but, as books for travelers, they convey essentially a single invitation to explore, to roam, to inquire.”

📚 The Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America, by Scott Borchert

A hammerhead shark is reintroduced into the wild in Galápagos National Park.

A hammerhead shark is reintroduced into the wild in Galápagos National Park. (Pablo Cozzaglio / AFP / Getty)

How climate change has influenced travel writing
“Lopez underscores how travel writing has changed as planetary conditions have worsened.”

📚 Horizon, by Barry Lopez

swimming in the wild

Gregg Segal

Swimming in the wild will change you
Waterlog is, at its most basic, what the title suggests—an assiduous ‘log’ of each of Deakin’s encounters with water. But it’s also a beautiful ode to the act of swimming outdoors that morphs into a rousing reminder of the importance of caring for the commons.”

📚 Waterlog, by Roger Deakin

man in a field

Stefan Heunis / AFP / Getty

Chigozie Obioma’s Homerian epic
“In rendering his protagonist’s journey to Cyprus … Obioma recasts Homer’s Odyssey.”

📚 An Orchestra of Minorities, by Chigozie Obioma

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is The Idiot, by Elif Batuman.

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