What’s the Best Travel Book?

My criteria for “Best Travel Book” has nothing to do with travel writing, a genre that is overpopulated with intellectuals showing off about their adventures.

My ideal travel book is thin, lightweight and water resistant. It must be able to survive in my rucksack or bike pannier, where things get crushed or soaked. It must be a cheap book that I’m willing to lose and it certainly can’t be a Kindle as electronic devices don’t last long in these conditions.

For many years I had a copy of George Orwell’s essays (“The Lion and the Unicorn”) stashed deep inside my bike pannier. I think Orwell is the best writer in English language but none of his titles qualifies as my best travel book. I also had a copy of King Lear in one of my bags but it was one of those books I “should” read but never did.

My choice of best travel book is Utz by Bruce Chatwin. It’s a book about alchemy, emperors, Nazis, Communists, WW2, secrecy, bankers, museums, madness, mystery, love and death.

Kaspar Joachim Utz is an eccentric Czech who collects porcelain figurines from the eighteenth century and manages to survive, with his stupendous collection, through the Nazi and Communist regimes in Czechoslovakia.

As well as being addictive, this little book took me to another world and made me behave in a way that I don’t do when I read books: I kept going back and re-reading bits of it; I bought copies for people; I kept looking up words and I felt a real sense of loss when I finished it.

A teacher once told me that if you come across a word you don’t understand your mind switches off and you will stop reading soon after – hence the need to look up words in the dictionary. But looking up words is a bore and I rarely do it.

This amazing little book made me reach for my old dictionary constantly and I learned a host of new words: harlequin, cabalist, abracadabra, rococo, arcanum, coco-de-mer – and many more. Looking up words was no longer a bore, with Bruce Chatwin it became a delight.

Although I don’t like travel books, In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin was one of a few books that gave me the impetus to travel alone across Asia many years ago (the other books were On the Road and Journey to Kars).

Before becoming a travel writer Chatwin worked at Sotheby’s in London, working his way up from the lowest position in the company (porter) to become one of their youngest directors ever. Utz is the first book I have ever read which brings that fusty old world of antiques to life. Chatwin died in January 1989, a few months before the country he had so beautifully described threw out the Communists and divided the country in two.

By Rupert Wolfe Murray

Traquair, Scotland, August 2014

4 Responses to What’s the Best Travel Book?

  1. Great Blog post, Rupert, thanks. I love the description of Utz and am taking it in the plane to Bucharest with me.

  2. Fiona Morris says:

    Nice article!
    The best travel books for me are the pre-loved ones you find that serendipitously pop out on a book swap shelf somewhere random while on your adventures. They seem to have been left just for you. After you’ve devoured it on those long waits to catch a bus, train or plane, you can then leave it in a special spot for some traveller to happen upon it by chance. I love the idea of these books taking on a life of their own, journeying around the world to whoever was meant to find them.

  3. freddy heidergott says:

    rupert, i’m so happy that i find you now. not that it is or was so difficult to find you. but even i left CC earlier than i most (and want). you’re one of the people i liked and respect the most. maybe because you have a lot of life experiants, and i really like to listening to those kind of things. so first of all i want to say to you : thanks that i had the opportunity to meet you in my live. because ones again i really find you a very interesting man. after i went from CC i went for a short time to dubai, were i stayed with friends. and after that week i traffel further to bangkok. and properly as you can remember i had a lot to do. and yes i did do a lot. only i did’t went to lao. but…..but, there is some contact between me and kate. so one day at the time…..step by step rupert. and yes i still have believe in my self. and i also believe in karma.
    but what i also want to tell you, because read your ‘story’ above this comment. where you write something about that teacher who told/learn you over lets say miss understanding words. and that you have to use the dictionary for the definition. wel i can tell you i really believe in that. and i will try to tell you why. i wrote ones a book what called diabetics, and it was written by ron l hubbert. later the founder off the scientology, what is by the way really not my thing! but that book i do like. and when people go further into the scientology they have to do al lot of courses/lessons. and of course that cost a lot of moony. what ever one of the lessons is called learning to learn (i think) because i exually only know the dutch word, and that is: leren leren cursus ! and i can say ones again what my meaning is about the scientology but this a really ggod book and lessen, for sure. i think its about the same as what you wrote what your teacher told you. and this book ‘maybe’ goos a little furter, because he also write about the effects when you read a miss understanding word (even when you think you knows what it means. and than you get symtones like yawning, or looking around, or put your hand onder your (front)head etc etc. so all by all …its really interesting rubert. exually both of the books. diabetics as well. gif it a try when ever you able to do. ok rupert, for so far now, but i really hope to hear something of you soon. thanx….
    and ps: sorry for my bad english.

  4. correction the first book i told you about is not called diabetics ofcource, but DIANETICS from ron l hubbert, ones again when you can.. gust give it a try… thnx rupert gr.freddy heidergott

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