Travel-writing, according to some of its critics, is a “belated” genre. The adventurers of the 19th century who wrote books about their efforts to cross uncharted deserts typically travelled by the best means available. But traversing the Sahara by camel begins to look decidedly self-indulgent when you could do it more easily by jeep. It is belatedness, the argument goes, that sometimes leads modern travel-writing into dubious nostalgia, or reduces it to silly stunts. Another option in the scramble for continued relevance is to embrace modernity, the so-called “cosmopolitan travel writing” exemplified by Pico Iyer, with its emphasis on shopping malls, airport terminals and the quirks of globalization. But this too has its pitfalls—not least an occasionally gratingly arch tone of irony. 

On 1 February 1936, Begum Hasrat Mohani, famed Indian writer and independence activist, sends the first of several letters to her daughter. She’s traveling on the Hajj, passing through Iran and Iraq on her way to Mecca. Along the way, she writes to her daughter, noting the sights and sounds she experiences on her pilgrimage—and give us a glimpse into a different kind of travel writing, from a different kind of travel writer.

I was reading Worlds of Knowledge in Women’s Travel Writing on an airplane when the pilot suddenly announced that we would be returning to our airport of origin due to a possible issue with the plane’s de-icing system. It was only my third flight since the onset of the pandemic and things were not going smoothly. As my plane banked sharply, my mind turned to the words of the volume’s editor, James Uden, who references the hurdles of COVID-era travel in the introduction. 

In Matthew Teller’s new travelogue, Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City, he explains that while Jerusalem’s Old City is known for its four quarters—Muslim, Christian, Armenian, and Jewish—this is a simplification that doesn’t recognize the many other ethnic and religious groups that make this city so unique. As the title suggests, Teller actually identifies nine quarters in the Old City, around which he structures his book. 

In this collection of travel stories, Canadian journalist and photographer Andrew Scott takes us on a lively romp through China, Japan, Laos, India (twice), South Korea, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Indonesia and Turkey. The congenial Scott exhibits just enough seriousness when it’s needed and is always sensitive to the people he meets, refreshingly non-judgmental and patient, although he admits that this insouciance sometimes took a good deal of effort on his part to maintain.

There are, in a very general sense, two kinds of travel memoir. In the first, writers take you on a journey somewhere they know very well. They share with you their deep understanding of the place—its people, its history and its geography. The authors’ physical journey is for the most part a literary scaffold upon which they hang their knowledge and expertise. In the second kind of travel memoir, the author is a direct proxy for the reader: as clueless and naïve as you—though perhaps a little braver—embarking together on the journey from the same starting point. You see new experiences and sights through the author’s eyes, and slowly develop the ability to interpret and understand these new surroundings.