Road Scholars

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GRAND TOUR: A new travel book takes you to Van Gogh country in Provence

Travel writers used to know what they were doing. Hemingway was the model: bluff and swaggering, machete for a pen, wouldn't be caught dead in a fanny pack. But since Papa's time, travel writers have become either less macho or more honest or both. Now they're our fellow road worriers: jet-lagged, air enraged, lost their laptops three changes back, their dignity sometime before that.

In a way, it's a relief. Hemingway made you feel like a lazy chump for missing out on the running of the bulls in Pamplona, but the new breed of travel books gives you the oxymoronic pleasure of being both over there and back here at the same time. As Alain de Botton puts it in The Art of Travel (Pantheon; 272 pages), "We may best be able to inhabit a place when we are not faced with the additional challenge of having to be there." As travel books go, The Art of Travel is on the unconventional side. It isn't about traveling anywhere in particular; it's an extended philosophical riff on the act of traveling itself. De Botton's specialty is the metaphysics of everyday life — he is the thinking lad's Nick Hornby — and in The Art of Travel he takes on the how, the why and the what-it-all-means of wanderlust. Mining his own sometimes hapless experiences (watch for a fight of Nietzschean proportions with his girlfriend in a Barbados cafe), De Botton encourages us to savor the small pleasures of traveling: the funny spelling on a Dutch sign, a cypress tree in Provence that's straight out of a Van Gogh painting, or a stranger's kitchen glimpsed from a speeding train.

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Tom Stone's The Summer of My Greek Taverna (Simon & Schuster; 250 pages) is concerned with pleasures of an earthier kind: food, drink, sun and sand. When a friend offers Stone a chance to run a restaurant on the tiny Greek island of Patmos, he jumps at it. He obviously hasn't heard the one about Greeks and gifts, and he soon discovers that his new job is less like Zorba the Greek and more like Kitchen Confidential with ouzo. Stone has to deal with tourists who party till dawn, fishermen who want their coffee at 7 a.m., gossipy locals who are afraid of the evil eye, and a partner who goes by the nickname O Lados (the Oily One). In the end, O Lados gets his just desserts, and so do we, in the form of a generous appendix of Stone's favorite Greek recipes.

And why leave home at all, when you can take it with you? Trailer Travel: A Visual History of Mobile America (Gibbs Smith; 157 pages), by Bryan Burkhart, Phil Noyes and Allison Arieff, is a celebration of the American fascination with mobile homes. Most of the photos here are promotional shots, but that simply cranks up the kitsch an extra notch: '50s-era nuclear children and busty, bouffant models — often in full evening wear — grin manically from the plush interiors of futuristic, tear-drop-shaped Kozy Coaches and Karriall Kampers, many of which look as if they were designed by Buck Rogers on acid. The authors admire their subject with very little irony, but you should feel free to bring your own. Trailer Travel is a glimpse of a moment in time, unimaginable now, when mobile homes were almost cool.

If Hemingway had met Robert Twigger on the road, he would probably have beaten him up and taken his per diem. The shy, scholarly Twigger's The Extinction Club (William Morrow; 222 pages) is about the elusive Pere David's deer, an anatomical cocktail of an animal with backward-facing horns, a long, thick camel neck and a donkey's tail. For centuries the only Pere David's in the world lived in a walled park outside Beijing, where they were hunted exclusively by the Emperor of China, until an enterprising missionary (the eponymous Pere) smuggled a few specimens out to the West. Tracking them takes Twigger around the world, from China to a used-book market in Cairo to the lavish estate of an English duke. The Extinction Club almost gets lost on the way as it veers from history to biology to autobiography. But in the end Twigger's numerous digressions are worth the trip — like his set piece on the 11,000-volume Yung Lo Ta Tien encyclopedia, which contained the totality of Chinese culture before it was burned in the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. As every good traveler knows, some roads shouldn't be missed just because they don't lead anywhere.

To write Ghosts of Tsavo (National Geographic; 275 pages), Philip Caputo went down some roads most people would gladly skip. The Tsavo region of Kenya is inhabited by a mysterious breed of lion that has no mane and eats humans as if they were Meow Mix. In one documented case, two lions stalked and killed 135 people during construction of a bridge across the Tsavo River. Joined by a rotating cast of biologists, local tribesmen and scary big-game hunters, Caputo heads into the African scrub to find the lions. This is darkest Hemingway country — the ghost of Francis Macomber haunts every page — but Caputo is blessedly free of Papa's ego. He's not afraid to describe an unsuccessful spear-throwing lesson with a Masai warrior or the distinctly un-Hemingwayesque experience of passing out from taking too much malaria medicine. He also tells us a few things Papa never did — like how, exactly, a lion eats a human being (belly first, then buttocks and thighs).

The reigning literary lion of post-Hemingway travel writers is V.S. Naipaul, who won last year's Nobel Prize for Literature. The Writer and the World (Knopf; 524 pages) brings together his best short work, most of which has been languishing uncollected for decades. A native of the tiny island of Trinidad, Naipaul is a travel writer almost by default — he is a foreigner everywhere he goes — and it's a privilege to look through his outsider's X-ray eyes at Mobutu's Zaire, or at a would-be revolutionary in Guyana, or at a holy man in Bombay, and see what is normally invisible to the tourist's eye.

Naipaul is at his most incisive when he hits closest to what, for Americans, is home: Norman Mailer's quixotic 1969 mayoral campaign in New York City (his slogan: "Get Ready for the Norman Conquest!") or the 1984 Republican Convention in Dallas. It's a little unsettling to be seen as exotic, and that unsettling feeling reminds us that the reason we love to travel and the reason we love to read are the same: to see ourselves clearly. "It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves," De Botton reminds us. "The domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, who may not be who we essentially are." In other words, getting lost — whether in a strange city or in a good book — can be the best way to find yourself.