Human kind has always been characterized by curiosity, and throughout history its most courageous and adventurous members have never hesitated to embark on journeys into the great unknown lying beyond the horizon. At times, such journeys would have a disastrous end, but most of them proved successful in terms of material gain, expansion of knowledge and stories – great stories about newly discovered lands, peoples, their cultures and customs. These invaluable accounts were compiled either by explorers themselves or by people close to them who were more gifted in the art of story-telling. Truth be said, some of these stories are not regarded as completely credible by modern experts, but in our opinion this does not affect much their beauty and significance. Below is our selection of old travel, voyage and exploration books that have stirred up the imagination of many generations and encouraged them to undertake similar adventures.
Histories (c.440 BC)
The “Father of History” can also be considered the first known travel writer. Aiming to document the causes of wars waged by Ancient Greece – and in particular, the causes of Persian invasion that took place between 490 and 480 BC – Herodotus traveled all over the eastern Mediterranean, recording everything he would find out about different peoples and their customs. As an excellent story-teller, he passionately noted every detail he deemed important for the completion of his works. His description of ancient Egypt is especially colorful and it has led many travelers and adventurers to follow in his footsteps and visit this mysterious land that was mostly alien to the ancient Greeks.
As for the veracity of Herodotus’ accounts, what he wrote about the places he visited, as well as what he described as having seen personally, is generally considered accurate. Many popular egyptology books rely on his description of mummification and other Egyptian customs, to the point of saying that what he wrote about Egypt is more valuable than all the other ancient records about this country. However, he also often had to record facts that could not be completely verified and that is why he has been under the scrutiny of modern historians. That said, it remains visible from Herodotus works that he always tried to separate fact from fiction.
A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768)
Sterne’s Sentimental Journey is considered one of the classics of the travel literature. Written and published shortly before its author’s death, this book approaches journeying in a manner that is slightly different from the one which was generally accepted among the British aristocracy of the 18th century. Unlike his fellow countrymen, who travel through Europe on predetermined routes and visit museums and art galleries, Sterne’s hero Yorick cares little about cultural monuments and instead finds pleasure in getting to know all kinds of people along the way. All these interactions affect him profoundly, and his journey thus slowly becomes an internal one – a journey of self-revelation. Yorick’s adventures are also infused with a healthy dose of English humor, which serves well Sterne’s intention to offer something different from a bare account of a voyage given by a dispassionate traveler.
The Innocents Abroad (1869)
As an already accomplished writer, Twain joined a group of Americans who traveled to Europe and the Holy Land aboard Quaker City, a steamship that had just gone through the Civil War a year before. He got sponsorship from a San Francisco paper Alta California by promising to send weekly reports of the progress of his journey, which he duly did. The Innocents Abroad is actually a collection of these reports gathered and published by Twain once he returned home. The book was an instant success, selling over 70,000 copies in the first year and remaining the writer’s best selling work until he died. Infused with his trademark humor, Twain’s observations of societies and cultures he encountered while traveling were often in stark contrast with what was written in travel guides of the time. He also touched on some deeper issues, criticizing an impractical and even trivial attitude of Europeans toward their own history and tradition. To some it may appear that they can sense a trace of arrogance in the writer’s judgements, but even if this is true, a critical outsider’s view should be appreciated by members of each culture that is not absorbed in thoughts of its own superiority.