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