The Magazine

Pilgrims' Progress

Another trek to Santiago?

Sep 8, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 48 • By THOMAS SWICK
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And so it has come to pass. Not everyone who walks to Santiago writes a book about it (yet), but virtually everyone who writes about a pilgrimage does so about Santiago. It is to the writer crowd what Dale Earnhardt still is to NASCAR fans: the one and only, eclipsing all others.

A search on Amazon.com for
"pilgrimage to Santiago" will bring up about 875 results, at least two dozen of which are travel books (the majority of them written within the last eight years). So pilgrims setting off for the renowned cathedral--which holds, according to legend, the remains of St. James--have no excuse for arriving ill-informed. They can read Edwin Mullins's The Pilgrimage to Santiago (a book that predates Coelho's by 13 years) or Pilgrimage to the End of the World: The Road to Santiago de Compostela by Conrad Randolph.

Their curiosity piqued, they can move on to Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim's Route into Spain by Jack Hitt; The Way Is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago by Arthur Paul Boers; Walking the Camino: A Modern Pilgrimage to Santiago by Tony Kevin; Walking the Camino de Santiago by Bethan Davies and Ben Cole; Walking to Santiago: Diary of a Pilgrimage by Mary Wilkie; and Camino Chronicle: Walking to Santiago by Susan Alcorn.

If those books don't do it, there's Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela: Chronicle of Love by Jack deGroot; Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago by Kerry Egan; and El Camino de Santiago: Rites of Passage by Wayne Chimenti.

For the starstruck, there's To the Field of Stars: A Pilgrim's Journey to Santiago de Compostela by Kevin A. Codd; Road of Stars to Santiago by Edward F. Stanton; Following the Milky Way: A Pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago by Elyn Aviva; and The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit by Shirley MacLaine.

People looking for some comic relief can try Travels with My Donkey: One Man and His Ass on a Pilgrimage to Santiago by Tim Moore or I'm Off for a Bit, Then, by the German comedian Hape Kerkeling. (A bestseller in Germany, it has yet to appear here; but since the author's style has been compared to that of Bill Bryson, it will.)

Perhaps you'd prefer your pilgrimage filtered through a more literary sensibility? Once again, the old camino does not disappoint, giving you Cees Nooteboom's Roads to Santiago and Kathryn Harrison's The Road to Santiago.

The road to Santiago is paved with pages.

Finding the proper title for a book is always tricky, and just because these titles (with the exception of the German's) possess a depressing sameness doesn't necessarily mean that the books do. Every person is unique, we know, and reacts to life in an individual way.

But do we need all these reactions to the same undertaking? Publishing's addiction to the sure bet is as strong as Hollywood's, but it's more troubling because of an inherent mission that goes beyond entertainment. How much of value is being ignored because of this tiresome pursuit of the proven? Even Hollywood stops after one remake.

Like Tuscany and Provence, the pilgrimage to Santiago (to coin a phrase) has been anointed with properties of inexhaustibility--and of course, profitability. While the rest of the world elbows for space on the shelf.

Thomas Swick, the author of Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland and A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler, has appeared in The Best American Travel Writing  for 2001, 2002, 2004, and 2008.