Just as I’ve done for the last few years, I greedily waited for my copy of The Best American Travel Writing, 2012 to arrive. I followed it through the online tracking codes, stalking my book as it was shipped to me. I couldn’t wait to get my mitts on it and dig in. After all, the other editions I’ve read were all really good. So surely it would be the same in 2012; but was it really? Like every other avid travel reader, I have my opinion.
This year’s collection, edited by William T. Vollmann, began with Monte Reel’s very clever story, How to Explore Like a Real Victorian Adventurer, originally published in The Believer. I loved how story of African exploration during Queen Victoria’s reign was all woven together while Reel went no farther than his local shopping mall. He simply read about the adventures of others in books – from the time of Queen Victoria, mind you – and then pieced the story together from there. His voice and perspective were quite believable, though, and the structure strong enough to hold my attention from start to finish, and even have a desire for more when I stuck my bookmark back in between the pages once I was done. This story, the first in the anthology, really was my favorite of them all.
I previously read a handful of other stories – The Telltale Scribes of Timbuktu by Peter Gwin (National Geographic); Maximum India by Pico Iyer (Conde Nast Traveler); Conquering an Infinite Cave by Mark Jenkins (National Geographic) – at their initial publication and enjoyed going back and looking at the story with fresh eyes. Other stories – The Tijuana Sports Hall of Fame by Bryan Curtis (Grantland); Railroad Semantics, the final story in the edition, by Aaron Dacytl (Railroad Semantics); Garbage City by Elliott D. Woods (VQR); as well as others – I found to be lacking and not necessarily worth acceptance into a series I had held in such high regard to this point. A handful of stories in the past also disappointed me, but not nearly as many as in this edition. Overall this collection seemed weak, although not without pleasant surprises.
As I mentioned, Reel’s story was clever and entertaining, and excellent opening essay. Paul Theroux – an author who I have not cared for in the least for quite some time – also surprised me with his submission of The Wicked Coast from The Atlantic. His arrogance and self-centeredness, which I have largely struggled with in his stories over the years, was generally nonexistent in his story. Instead it was an entertaining piece about the Maine coastline outside of the tourist season. And it ended in a way that left me thinking, wondering, and wanting a little more, which is what I always expect from the best of travel stories.
Several other stories also wowed me. Some, like Robin Kirk’s City of Walls from The American Scholar, seemed like they’d be more appropriate it other anthologies, like The Best American Essays, but sometimes the lines on genres and subgenres are blurred and can be crossed. In this instance I was happy it was, since I found it to be a very interesting and well-researched read on life amongst the walls in Belfast, Northern Ireland, since the end of The Troubles. That wasn’t all, though; Chernobyl, My Primeval, Teeming, Irradiated Eden by Henry Shukman from Outside, The Holy City of the Wichitas by Kimberly Meyer in Ecotone, and Now Ye Know Who the Bosses Are Here Now by J. Malcolm Garcia in McSweeney’s were also strong, well-thought out essays that tended toward the style of narrative journalism.
On the whole I did enjoy The Best American Travel Writing, 2012, and do recommend it to those who are interested in good travel writing; it may not be better than years past, but it’s still an impressive collection. Sure, at times, as I said, it was weak. Other times I found it pleasantly surprising. And in other chapters I was more than impressed, putting down the book and wishing for my time to come to write such a beautiful story. One day it will, but until that point, and even well after, I will smile when reading such well-written stories with so much heart and feeling, making me wish that I too was there on the adventures with the author.