Carolyn Waters, today’s guest, is Assistant Head Librarian at the New York Society Library, as well as Writer Services Librarian at the NYSL, as well as a treasured friend. She’s the contact person for all the writing groups based at the library, and she plans the monthly Writing Life Daytime Talk Series. Carolyn writes, “I have a master’s degree in business administration from NYU, and spent twenty years as a consultant in the financial services industry before I came to my senses and got a master’s in library science at Pratt.” She’s been at the NYSL for her whole short library career.
Traveling is the great joy in my life. I’m the one who takes all of her vacation days and cannot relate to colleagues who leave days unused every year. I get sulky when I go a month without even a long weekend away, and if for some unthinkable reason I couldn’t travel, I’d take the day off just so I could read about fantastic places.
My favorite hideaway in my exceptionally fabulous library is Stack 1. Stack 1 is, for all intents and purposes, the basement. It is dark and windowless, airless, unnervingly quiet even in a library notable for its tranquility, yet it is the source of my reading nirvana. I can disappear into the travel books, undisturbed and lost in other worlds, only occasionally rudely jolted back to the present by a clanking pipe or the heaving sigh of the ancient elevator called to another floor.
I consume travel narratives in a few categories defined by highly personal location criteria: the familiar; the soon-to-be-known-to-me (the most wonderful, because it means a trip is forthcoming!); the longed-for; and the never-in-a-million-years. I sometimes wither at the sight of articles screaming “100 Most Celebrated Travel Books!” and “100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time!” But then I perk up at the realization that I’ve read a great many of them already. It’s enough to make me want to put my own list together. So I did and—because Lorrie asked – I give you my own wildly subjective (albeit more manageable number of) favorites in the oeuvre, based on nothing more than my appreciation for the place, the story, the writing itself, or maybe because they didn’t make those other lists.
Through Glacier Park, Mary Roberts Rinehart Rinehart was America’s very own Agatha Christie (she is probably responsible for the phrase “the butler did it”). She was also a journalist with a great love of adventure. Her account of horse packing and boating through Montana’s Glacier National Park in 1916 is an absolute joy – she proves to be stronger than most of her fellow travelers (all men, including her husband and son), but most of all she’s a funny and enlightening companion on an absolutely delightful trip through the park.
The Pine Barrens, John McPhee As a N.J. native, I am a frequent visitor to and vocal champion of the state’s Pine Barrens region. So you can certainly ignore my boosterism, but please pick up this book. McPhee is a glorious writer and his sketches of the people and the natural phenomena of the mysterious “Pines” are simply sublime.
The Last Empty Places, Peter Stark Stark views nighttime images taken from satellites and notices a number of big, blank, dark spots on the American map. Some are obviously protected areas like national parks, but the others turn out to be intriguing and historically important empty places, some even within easy reach of major metropolitan centers.
The Unconquered, Scott Wallace I have a seemingly unquenchable thirst for tales about the Amazon. I will go there someday, but probably from the safety of a luxury cruise with a caipirinha in hand. If you are fascinated by the unknown, interested in undiscovered peoples, and enjoy dangerous and exciting adventure tales, this book will satisfy on an extraordinary scale. It is one of the best books I have read. If “unputdownable” is not a word, it should be.
Aku Aku: The Secret of Easter Island, Thor Heyerdahl I have a soft spot for this book, because it might just be the reason for the wanderlust I have to this day. As a little girl just learning to read, my parents plopped this tome into my lap. (No, I can’t answer that question; you’ll have to ask them.) I read what I could at the time, and they filled in the rest, supplemented by the amazing and mysterious photographs of the moai. I was entranced by the story and the place then – and still am. Easter Island remains on my “longed for” list.
An African in Greenland, Tété-Michel Kpomassie I don’t have an overwhelming desire to visit Greenland, but this book relates a tale that is unlikely, disorienting, and utterly appealing. Kpomassie was born in a village in western Africa and was so enthralled by a children’s book about Greenland that he vowed to go there one day. He did eventually make it to the island – and he writes about his fantastic journey with all the wide-eyed wonder and cultural confusion you’d expect.
The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World…via its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes, Carl Hoffman Whoa. Do you want to take the scariest and surely most unsafe trips ever? Me either. But Hoffman does and he shows us just how much we take for granted when we commute. For much of the world’s population, traveling to work or to see family can be a game of Russian roulette.
The Cruel Way: Switzerland to Afghanistan in a Ford, 1939, Ella Maillart Strong, passionate, adventurous women are my heroes. The title of this book says it all: Maillart and her friend Annemarie Schwarzenbach take off in 1939, overland, on an adventure through the Middle East. (See also: anything by Freya Stark and Isabella Bird, two of my all-time favorite women travel writers.)
Montaigne’s Travel Journal, Michel de Montaigne The famous essayist’s sixteenth-century travel journal continues to inspire me as I keep records of my own trips, reminding me that even the most mundane and casual experiences can be just as fascinating as the planned bits.
Thanks to Carolyn Waters for the photos.
FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast
Charis Books and More, Atlanta, GA
Garcia Street Books, Santa Fe, NM
Ninth Street Bookshop, Wilmington, DE