Directions for Armchair Travelers

Dalia Sofer

Evoking place has long been one of the most compelling feats of the literary arts. The opening pages of Dinesen's Out of Africa summon the sweeping grandeur of the high plains of Kenya in a way no cartographer could ever capture. In a few scant lines Yeats's "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" transports a reader body and soul to its "bee loud glade." The best writers don't work with facts or figures to recreate a place. Rather, they ply the tools of their trade: metaphor, cadence, and imagery. Readers turn to travel guides for a more literal mapping of a place—for the elevation of Barcelona or where to find the best pint of bojalwa in Botswana. But these books tend to leave the sentience, the poetry of a place, out. Well, at least until now.

In January, National Geographic Books launched a series that offers a different kind of travel book—one that uses the unique perspective of a writer to explore the larger implications of place. The Mays of Ventadorn: Tales From Southwest France, by Pulitzer Prize–winning poet W.S. Merwin, and Southwestern Homelands, an illumination of the American Southwest by fiction writer and essayist William Kittredge, both published in June, are the latest literary travel memoirs in the Directions series.

Distributed by Simon & Schuster, Directions will release an annual list of six to ten titles written by prominent poets, novelists, creative nonfiction writers, and playwrights—many writing about travel for the first time.

"The travel memoir genre has been around for centuries," says Elizabeth Newhouse, the series editor. "What makes Directions different is that we're using, with some exceptions, writers who don't normally write about travel. Given their literary sensibilities, we feel these writers will raise the standard of writing about place to a higher level. We hope they'll bring new freshness and perspective to the genre, and will help resuscitate it."

Jan Morris—journalist, historian, and author of over 40 books, including The World of Venice and Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country—kicked off the series in January with A Writer's House in Wales, in which Morris writes of Trefan Morys, her country home in the remote northwest corner of the country. Beginning with a description of her house—the cat Ibsen, the "untidy yard," the surrounding woods—Morris weaves into her book a history of Wales as well as a history of her own life.

In Oaxaca Journal, published in March, Oliver Sacks—neurologist and author of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat—writes of his passion for ferns and of a recent trip he took to Oaxaca, all the while informing the reader about the Mexican state's history, its food, and the ancient culture of its indigenous people, the Zapotecs.

While some of the authors are using the project to write about places to which they have a deep connection, others have chosen to explore new places. A.M. Homes, author of such novels as The End of Alice and Music for Torching, is currently writing a book on Los Angeles for the Directions series, scheduled for publication later this year. Homes, who lives in New York City, says that the project has offered her a chance to spend time in an unfamiliar place and to explore how it feels to be an outsider. Homes chose Los Angeles because she views it as a very American city—a "dream factory" for all kinds of people, made more fascinating by its geography and its susceptibility to earthquakes. "In fiction you invent characters," she says, "but here you find real characters."

Other books scheduled for publication this year include Francine Prose on Sicily; Susanna Moore on Kauai, Hawaii; and John Edgar Wideman on Martinique. Kathryn Harrison, Jamaica Kincaid, Chang-rae Lee, Larry McMurtry, Mark Strand, Paul Theroux, and others have also agreed to participate in the series.

For more information about Directions, visit the National Geographic Books Web site at

Dalia Sofer is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.