Ebola, Liberia and Us; What We Can Learn From Travel Literature

August 14, 2014

               By now, no doubt, some entrepreneurs, with an eye to cashing in on misery and paranoia, have clobbered together a mishmash of Wikipedia articles and presented the result as a ninety-nine cents e-book on Amazon, Ebola for Dummies 101. But if you are interested in learning about the viral horror in our midst, check out Richard Preston’s brilliant, highly informative, non-fiction book, The Hot Zone.  I don’t recommend it for children! I came across this book more than a decade ago. It’s still the most terrifying book I’ve ever read but I’m glad that it landed on my shelves. It’s better to know what we’re dealing with even if my nightmares occasionally feature someone bleeding profusely from their eyeballs . . . usually me.

               I am wild about travel literature. By July, 2011, I‘d amassed a collection of more than four thousand travel books. I learned far more from them than I did from any college course. When images from inadequately equipped hospitals in Liberia flash across my T.V. screen, they don’t carry with them a feeling of disinterested remoteness, of something happening to strangers in a strange land. Because, although I’ve never set foot in Monrovia, I’ve read Journey Without Maps, Graham Greene’s classic account of his travels in Liberia in 1935. More recently, I read Tim Butcher’s Chasing the Devil, about his 2009 attempt to retrace Greene’s journey. The travel book world is plagued with a plethora of copycat travelogues, mostly rubbish, but Butcher’s book is brilliant. In some ways it even surpasses Greene’s original. I highly recommend both books to anyone interested in Liberia.

               Travel books have not just opened my eyes to foreign lands at certain points in history. They often teach me about myself. I’m currently reading Brazilian Adventure, written in 1933 by Ian Fleming’s more talented brother, Peter. As he states in the opening line, ‘[i]t began with an advertisement in the Agony Column of The Times.’

               The advertisement in question ran as follows:

“Exploring and sporting expedition, under experienced guidance, leaving England June, to explore rivers Central Brazil, if possible ascertain fate Colonel Fawcett; abundance game, big and small; exceptional fishing; ROOM TWO MORE GUNS; highest references expected. Write Box X, The Times, E.C.4.”

               On a whim, Peter Fleming responded to the advertisement and joined the expedition. They never found Colonel Fawcett but the journey did produce this wonderful book.  Early in the book, Mr Fleming ruminates on why some men set out to be explorers. I think that what he says applies equally to why some of us become writers.

               ‘Adventure is really a soft option. Adventure has always been a selfish business. Men who set out to find it may – like men who go and get married – feel reasonably confident that a successful issue to their project will be of service to the world. But the desire to benefit the community is never their principal motive, any more than it is the principal motive of people who marry each other. They do it because they want to. It suits them; it is their cup of tea.

               So it requires far less courage to be an explorer than to be a chartered accountant. The courage which enables you to face the prospect of sitting on a high stool in a smoky town and adding up figures over a period of years is definitely a higher, as well as a more useful, sort of courage than any which the explorer may be called on to display.’

               This passage resonated with me because people often comment that it was brave of me to ditch being a lawyer to become a writer. Usually by brave, they mean foolish but sometimes they actually do mean brave. I hate it when they say that. I always find it so very frightening. And I don’t fully understand where they’re coming from. Being a writer is far, far easier than being a lawyer. It is most definitely the soft option. I did it because it suits me. It is my cup of tea.  As a lawyer, I felt like I was wasting my life. Now other people feel like I’m wasting my life. Since it’s my life, obviously this is a happier state of affairs for me. My second book for children, Evie Brooks: Central Park Showdown will be published by The O’Brien Press in Britain and Ireland next month on September 1st. This prospect gives me much greater pleasure than anything I achieved in my legal career.  

               For anyone who’s interested in exploring the wonderful world of travel literature, you might want to dip into this list of the top eighty-sixty books in the genre. While I might quibble with the order and the omissions, it’s an excellent list. Happy exploring to all the readers and writers!



Back to the Blog