In grade school I would skim the readers for something intriguing, passing over everyday stories of American life that were supposed to draw in readers with their familiarity. I yearned for tales of distant lands, places with unique landscapes, animals and customs. This was also my favorite fare when it came to fiction.
As a junior high student I soaked up Jules Verne adventures in distant places such as the famed Around the World in Eighty Days, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and the lesser known Michael Strogoff: Courier of the Czar. As an adult I discovered that my favorite junior high author chafed under the formulaic requirements imposed on him for writing his adventure novels. But, they were the right stories to get me hooked on reading at that time. Even today, Jules Verne’s most famous works are frequently remade as series and movies.
Many American authors started their career by describing their travels. These works were often largely autobiographical. However, seeing the rest of the world through new eyes resulted in more complex themes in their later novels. Three of the most famous American authors started off writing on long passages across the sea:
- Herman Melville of Moby Dick fame, first wrote largely autobiographical works such as Redburn and White-Jacket to describe his adventures as a sailor.
- Mark Twain wrote Innocents Abroad, a humorous view of the naiveté of Americans on a cruise to the Middle East and Life on the Mississippi to describe his own days as a river man. Both of these came before his most famous novel chronicling the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
- Jack London wrote the purely adventurous John Barleycorn before completing The Call of the Wild and Sea-Wolf on which his fame rests.
Travelogs are also the works of a mature writers. John Steinbeck, widely known for his stories of the Great Depression, chronicled his 1960 trip across the country in Travels with Charley: In Search of America. Steinbeck didn’t simply describe the new scenery, he reflected on his own life, and the flood of changes that had washed over the country since he was a much younger man.
Well known authors also record the journey’s of others. John Krakauer traced the path of a self-disenfranchised wealthy young college grad, Chris McCandles, as he attempted to reinvent himself in a quest to live a life off of the grid in Into the Wild. Despite this young man’s initial success, he followed the lure to go farther into the wild. His trek into Alaska ended up being deadly.
I have found books about distant lands not just for entertaining. Stories using world building techniques in the world that actually exists are some of my favorites. Therefore, I have never outgrown my taste for both fiction and nonfiction books that take me to a part of the world where I have never been, and everything seems a bit strange.