On my trip to Ohio I discovered two excellent independent bookstores. The first was Paragraphs in Mount Vernon, a cozy store run by the energetic Lois K. Hanson, who brought in two groups for my talk, one at 6 and one at 7, so I was able to sell every book that Lois had ordered. It was my first career sellout.
Three nights later I read at Mac’s Backs-Books in Cleveland Heights. It was a miserable evening – cold rain that eventually turned to snow – and I got an understandably small turnout. But the owner, Suzanne DeGaetano, took a seat and made me feel like a wise and entertaining author. Afterwards, with few books to sign, I scanned the shelves and was impressed not just by the number of books packed into the tight space but by the quality. I was honored to think that The Joys of Travel would join them.
Sunday I met a man whose business used to take him to Jordan. One day visiting the American embassy in Amman, he noticed a group of people gathered in a room reading Bibles. He asked if they were part of a Bible study group, though it seemed an odd thing for the embassy to host.
"Oh no," he was told, "they're just trying to figure out where to go for the weekend."
I have an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books that uses the story of my career to look at travel writing over the last 40 years (in books, magazines, and newspapers). Along the way it touches on the rise of American self-absorption, the shame of National Geographic, and the mystery of Louis C.K.'s initials.
From Gambier I headed to Akron. This was the farthest north I’d been in Ohio and, instead of walking, I drove around the city. The next day, speaking to students at the university, I told them that – just as my friend claims that every time he watches a baseball game he sees something new – each new city I visit provides me with something I’ve never seen before. In Akron it was a baseball stadium on Main Street (home of the Rubber Ducks) and a church named after a living person: Ernest Angley’s Grace Cathedral. The words appeared not on a small sign planted on the lawn – as you’d find at St. Stephen’s or St. Jude’s – but in large white letters on the façade. Of course, if you found your own church you can do what you want with it – including stamping its walls with your name – but it seemed to go against the Christian ideal of humility.
When I finished I got a number of good questions from the students who had gathered at lunchtime to hear me talk about how I became a travel writer and how I go about writing a travel story. In the first part I mentioned my year in France, including the summer of farm work in Alsace. A faculty member asked if I was familiar with Blonde d’Aquitaine cattle, which one finds in southwestern France. I said I wasn’t and she proceeded to show me a photograph of hers. (In addition to teaching, she runs a farm.) They were very handsome cows and proved that, even at talks, you are often surprised by the new.
Walking around Kenyon I also noticed, with some concern, posters bearing my picture. A friend had gotten me invited to speak as part of the Kenyon Review’s “Writers on Writing” series. I had never been published in the esteemed quarterly (thankfully, I had not submitted anything in years), and now I was scheduled to address students and faculty in its dollhouse offices. In the Cheever Room. On the campus where David Foster Wallace gave his now famous commencement address (copies of which were for sale in the college bookstore). I strolled the gravel paths nervously going over my lines.
About 25 people sat expectantly in the bright Cheever Room at the back of the Review’s offices. I began by reading the opening of an essay of mine from The Wilson Quarterly (as a sign that I was quarterly-worthy). Then I spoke for about 30 minutes on the three steps in writing a travel story: preparation before the trip, legwork while on site, and writing. I talked about the important elements: movement, personal voice, point of view, imagination, humor. And I mentioned how most of my time in front of the computer screen is not spent writing but rewriting. I quoted Paddy Chayevsky – “I’m not a great writer, but I’m a great rewriter” – but forgot Andre Gide: “I rewrite in order to be reread.”
The talk was well-received, which made me feel good (I hadn’t embarrassed my friend). But later it occurred to me that a travel writer speaking in an academic setting benefits from a remarkably low bar. If you don’t talk about frequent flyer strategies and the top 10 European hotels, you can almost come off sounding intellectual.