Book prize chair says, "Making a list of funny travel books is a surprisingly contentious task"
Garrison Keillor, Paul Theroux, Mary Roach, Eric Weiner among authors who helped compile list
Bill Bryson only author on list with more than one book
Oldest book on list published in 1849, four written since year 2000
We expect a lot from our travel writers:
Cultural insight. Entertaining anecdotes. A little bit of derring-do. But, mostly, we want them to make us laugh.
As every traveler knows, a good sense of humor is essential when facing the mysteries and miseries of a foreign culture. That’s what makes writers who can deliver fascinating stories from around the world while making us snort our cardamom chai through our noses such treasured commodities.
For the past few months the CNN Travel staff has been scouring our shelves – and convening a panel of outside experts – to curate the definitive list of funniest travel books ever written.
If such a task is impossible – as several contributors have suggested – then the joke is surely on us.
Experts weigh in
“Making a list of funny travel books is a surprisingly contentious task, because making jokes about the people you travel amongst goes against the whole purpose of travel writing which is to understand and empathize,” says Barnaby Rogerson, head of the UK-based Eland Publishing and longtime chair of the Dolman Travel Book Prize.
“The only way out of this conundrum is to turn the humor against yourself, and most especially about our hidden expectations of the heroic traveler or our banal tourist industry.”
That’s one opinion.
Sage though it is, not everyone applies the same criteria.
Mark Twain, for one, took immense joy in making jokes about the rich and ancient cultures he encountered while writing “The Innocents Abroad”: “The community is eminently Portuguese – that is to say, it is slow, poor, shiftless, sleepy and lazy.”
We couldn’t raise the cantankerous Twain for his picks, but others who weighed in for us included writers Garrison Keillor, Paul Theroux, Mary Roach, Eric Weiner, Andrew McCarthy, Peter Moore, Andrew Mueller and John Birmingham, as well as industry experts such as Melissa Chessher (director of online journalism and instructor of travel writing classes at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications), Shawn Donley (book buyer for Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, the largest independent bookstore in the United States), Ed Park (editor at Amazon Publishing’s Little A imprint) and Elaine Petrocelli and Luisa Smith of the California-based Book Passage Travel Writers Conference.
None of the above were responsible – not to say culpable – for the final list, whose contentious entries and order were determined by frequency of mentions, persuasiveness of arguments for and against and, in a couple of cases, naked autocratic preference.
15. ‘The Sex Lives of Cannibals’ (2004)
By J. Maarten Troost
At age 26, Troost leaves the cushy city life and embarks on a two-year stint in the heat-blasted “end of the world” – in this case, the equatorial Pacific atoll of Tarawa in the Republic of Kiribati.
“Looking for a writer who can capture the hilarity of travel like the beloved Bill Bryson? J. Maarten Troost’s ‘The Sex Lives of Cannibals’ is a comic classic of a travelogue that will completely change the way you look at the idyllic South Pacific.” – Shawn Donley, new book purchasing supervisor at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, America’s largest independent bookstore
“It’s entirely possible that somewhere on planet Earth there exists a cuisine more unpalatable than that found in Kiribati. I accept this possibility like I accept the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. I have never encountered it. I cannot imagine it. I simply accept that there is a statistical possibility of its existence.”
14. ‘Vroom with a View’ (2006)
By Peter Moore
From Milan to Rome on a ’61 Vespa nicknamed Sophia. If you understand the “Sophia” reference you’ll appreciate not just where the Italy-intoxicated Moore goes, but where he’s coming from.
No less an authority than Mario Batali blurbed the book as “a brilliant love letter to Italy,” and several on our panel agreed.
“Even though she was with Andy she lapped up Alfonso’a attention, and when it was turned elsewhere she sat getting slowly pissed on the enamel-stripping red, all the while giving a blow-by-blow account of what her therapist had said to anyone who would listen. ‘I am a beautiful and desirable woman,’ she said morosely. ‘I’ve just got to accept that.’”
13. ‘The Lost Continent’ (1989)
By Bill Bryson
The preeminent bard of genial travel laughs embarks on a 38-state tour in search of the vanishing small town America of his youth … in his mother’s aging Chevy Chevette.
“Early Bryson just kills me. Love his line about living in London, the weather there: ‘It was like living inside Tupperware.’ ‘Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe’ is also excellent … just about any Bryson, really.” – Mary Roach, author of “Stiff” and “Gulp.”
“As I always used to tell Thomas Wolfe, there are three things you just can’t do in life. You can’t beat the phone company, you can’t make a waiter see you until he’s ready to see you and you can’t go home again.”
12. ‘Coasting’ (1999)
By Dick Flinthart
A swaggering travel guide that takes in the good, the bad and the malignant features of 2,800 kilometers of Australia’s East Coast.
The funny endorsement
“My fave travel book is Dirk Flinthart’s ‘Coasting,’ a sort of surf and drugs tour of eastern Australia. It was publicly burned by the mayor of Mackay, or maybe Townsville. Possibly both. I seem to recall the entry for Ipswich, my old hometown, was something like, ‘Don’t. Just don’t. They all play banjo with their toes out there.” – John Birmingham, author of “He Died With a Felafel in his Hand” and “The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco.”