Road less travelled

<p>Travel books are in the doldrums. When cheap flights made everywhere accessible, guidebook publishers went bonkers: there are seven guides to Marrakesh in print, all interchangeable and expensive. Nowadays bewildered punters are mugging up online, buying a good street map and going it alone.</p>
<p>Travel writing, conversely, is booming. This is despite booksellers&rsquo; quaint insistence on arranging books in author order, although most customers want it arranged by country. <br />
In this post-colonial era, the genre is finally leaving its imperial/triumphal past behind: Speke in 1857 boasted of &ldquo;ripping open Africa&rdquo; and &ldquo;smashing the Nile on the head&rdquo;. To Buddhists, Everest is sacred as Chomolungma, but how did Edmund Hillary announce his ascent in 1953? &ldquo;We knocked the bastard off.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Eric Newby and Tony Hawks have refreshingly satirised much of this &ldquo;summit-bagging&rdquo;, &ldquo;look at the natives&rsquo; funny hats&rdquo;, style of writing. We are generally a bit more respectful of the cultures we fly into on the cheap, and we often want to combine summer reading with finding out about our outlandish surroundings.</p>
<p>Television is an obvious driver of travel literature sales, but only fitfully; Palin sales collapse between series, and his chino-clad niceness may not be enough to keep him in print in the future.</p>
<p>Travellers who really immerse themselves in another culture and show us something new about ourselves enjoy more perennial sales. Like Harrer&rsquo;s <i>Seven Years in Tibet</i>, Thesiger&rsquo;s <i>Arabian Sands</i> remains a word-of-mouth classic (Penguin even keeps the hardback in print).</p>
<p>Travel writing can be a broad area, but booksellers&rsquo; rigid attitude to classification loses us sales: Ray Mears ends up in sport or survival, Kerouac&rsquo;s <i>On the Road</i> has to stay only in fiction, and the recent superb bestseller <i>The Discovery of France</i> by Graham Robb is usually classed as history, but sells more from travel. For big reasons, meditative nature writing is all the rage (Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin especially) but the books get lost among the bird-guides. All these writers show journeying at its best.</p>
<p>An exotic destination is not a necessity: Norman Lewis pushed the envelope so far as to write about Essex. One of Bryson&rsquo;s funniest passages chronicles his B&amp;B experience in that neglected travel destination, Dover. A Frenchman has written a passable travelogue about a journey around his bedroom. The journey&rsquo;s the thing. As Stevenson said: &ldquo;to travel is better than to arrive&rdquo;.&nbsp;</p>