Saturday, February 24, 2007

Traveling, with or without a donkey

The AAUW is having a used book sale in Concord Mall. I managed to spend $13.50, and would have spent more except I bought as many books as I could carry. I got a Time-Life history of ancient Rome for a dollar, not much text, but enough, and very nice illustrations, including maps. I love maps, particularly historic maps, where Marseille is Massilia and Naples is Neapolis. This is a bathroom book to my way of thinking.

You've heard of coffee table books? I like to keep a nice book in the bathroom for, well, extended reading. I've gotten halfway through ancient Rome in this fashion. I also practice reading French phrases aloud in the bathroom. Doesn't everyone?

But I digress. I bought a book I've always wanted to read, Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey. I should mention here that I love books about traveling to damned uncomfortable places, and Travels with a Donkey fits the bill exactly. I myself don't want to travel to damned uncomfortable places at all; European capitals are more my style, or what would be my style if I had a style. I like others to serve as surrogates for me and go to these frightful places. In R L Stevenson's day, anywhere off the beaten track was likely to be uncomfortable and primitive, and lodging was apt to involve sharing a bed with a stranger or two. This suited Stevenson just fine. He was a man who took life as it came, more or less.

One of my favorite of this genre is Motoring with Mohammed, by Eric Hansen, about his travels in Yemen. I defy anyone to read the first page of this book and not be captivated. Baghdad without a Map by Tony Hurwitz is another. It's about the Baghdad of Saddam Hussein, and other Arab countries where the author sojourned.

For some reason, Englishmen are more likely than most to go where no man has been before. Uncomfortable places are probably all in a day's work for those who endured the rigors of English public schools. Redmond O"Hanlon's adventures in Borneo are an example of a couple of Brits venturing into a land of ticks, fleas, cholera and other hazards and living to tell the tale.

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