Book (Series) Crush: Vintage Travel Writing

11 11 2010

Here’s the unfortunate history of travel writing (and, incidentally, of travel itself): It came about thanks to imperialism. While we owe much to the great explorers and their great explorations, original travel writing came about, for the most part, because of that rotten “E” word: Empire. Some texts, like the fictional Gulliver’s Travels protested imperialism. Countless others, however, chronicled real life (and fictional) adventures in foreign lands as a means of supporting, of getting people excited about, the expansion of Western culture (consider anything written by Rudyard Kipling).

But enough of my soapbox. The fact is that we as a people have a curiosity of the unknown, the exotic. While these days it seems we have to go off to space to find the unexplored, there is still the desire to travel, actually or via a good book. And with that, I flash back to a series of early travel guides, from none other than that classic publisher Penguin Books.

The first of the “Travel and Adventure” series of Penguin Books, with their signature cerise (cherry red) covers was The Dark Invader, recollections of a German intelligence officer in the first world war. From this first in 1936 to the last in 1959, Penguin cerise put out 96 travel and adventure titles, some by writers who are now literary legends, like Vita Sackville-West and D.H. Lawrence, others who have faded into obscurity.

The point is, these books are fascinating. Yes, most were written during the time of Empire, and many promoted Empire, but they are like any other literature from that period, now a little bit of history. There are adventures to the Arctic, journeys on the Oregon Trail, and war stories from the Spanish Civil War. Best of all, there are eight adventurous ladies in the mix, one of whom, Rosita Forbes, penned three cerise titles.

Sometimes, travel is as captivating to read as it is to do, and these titles certainly underline that fact. See a full archive of the books on this handy guide, and check out this great history of them.