The Magazine

Have Book, Will Travel

The author is sold, along with the text.

Feb 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 23 • By THOMAS SWICK
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Travel writers, regularly dismissed as trivialists, rarely indulge in the popular book tour whine. It's not just that we have bigger trips to fry, we have fewer bones to pick. We don't see what novelists find so objectionable about a diet of fine hotels, especially when the rooms all come reserved and generously paid for. We are puzzled by the memoirists' complaint about living out of a suitcase because to us it's infinitely preferable to living in the past. And, needless to say, we don't quite grasp the horror of going out and meeting readers. Those sensitive souls who flaunt their lack of social skills are as pathetic as people who boast that they are bad at math. A signing in Dubuque is not a journey into the heart of darkness.

The only possible trauma of a book tour is the potential encounter with apathy: The empty chairs of a ghostly chain at the short end of a mall in a town without pity. But for this, too, travel writers are much better prepared. We tend not to enter MFA programs, teach at universities, or live in New York City, so we are in constant touch with the great unread. From our hours spent in airports we know that most Americans, when presented with large chunks of free time and removed from demanding home entertainment systems, will still find almost any excuse--a cell phone, a laptop, another bag of chips--not to pick up a book. To travel is to be continually reminded of the growing homelessness of the written word.

So, unburdened by illusions and still out of the house, travel writers are the happiest authors on tour. (Not to mention the most symmetrical.) Some may give the impression, often by their wardrobes, that they'd be much more content sharing gourds of gazelle blood with Masai tribesmen, but don't believe them. A book tour provides us with a focus, not always a given in our all-over-the-map trade. ("No one," Paul Theroux once wrote, "has ever accused me of traveling with a theme.") And the focus, in another pleasing twist, is us.

Travel writers are, by nature, in search of the other--which, by definition, is not oneself. Some memoirists manqúes have wandered into the field, and appropriated place as nothing more than a scenic backdrop to the more important story of themselves. But the majority, the best (it goes without saying), project their interest outwards. It is only on a book tour that we stand front and center.

True, that position is difficult to define--not to mention enjoy--in an empty store. But all day long the evening reading gives us a sense of purpose, a handy response to Bruce Chatwin's ever-present "what am I doing here?" And if it turns out to be a wash, there's always the sympathetic staff to chat with, and pump for local color. A stood-up author still beats a doubting travel writer, especially when they're one and the same.

I know because I've played the part. When my collection of travel stories came out in paperback, I traveled to the Midwest to revisit some of the places that appear in the book. It was a self-guided tour--my publisher is small; I am even smaller--which, to the bestseller pashas, probably sounds as uplifting as a solo honeymoon. But they're not travel writers flying coach with their first paperback.

The shuttle from Midway buzzed with raves for warring weekend attractions. The young woman behind me announced that she had come to see the Red Sox play, in a rare Wrigley Field appearance, while two other women talked excitedly about the Blues Festival. It was good preparation, which I wouldn't have gotten in a chauffeured limo, for the Printers Row Book Fair.

The thing about great cities is that they have enough people to go around. On Saturday afternoon, crowds of non-frequent flyers grazed the book tents on Dearborn Street. "Everybody's carrying about 15 extra pounds right now," Carlos Cumpian, a local Chicano writer, explained to me as we sipped iced tea at a sidewalk café. "During the winter they're able to hide it under coats. Chicagoans look their best in October--after the summer, and before they've had their Halloween candy."

The evening VIP party was held in a parking lot. The unassuming locale carried a certain appeal which apparently only I appreciated, as almost no other authors attended. This was a disappointment. At the Miami Book Fair there had been a cocktail party in a downtown office tower which most of the featured authors attended. In Austin, the Texas Book Festival featured breakfast at the governor's mansion and a dinner and dance band Saturday evening. The Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock hosted a black-tie gala that included a postprandial game of "Name That Tome" (my team lost to Roy Blount Jr.'s). Each had seemed a kind of glittery reward for the cloistered life which every author could treat as a personal celebration.