Travel: A source of human ills? Philip Marsden’s ‘Rising Ground’ & more...


EXCERPT: Once there were just nomads, their wanderings no more than necessary for survival. But then came the stockades their successors built and the fire-warmed ­settlements in which they huddled — and suddenly travel changed, becoming what for most would henceforth be a pursuit more elective than essential. There were many motives for it. Sheer curiosity — what’s beyond the fence? — came first. Then a need to trade, to inhabit, to conquer, to preach, to take part in a pilgrimage, to migrate and settle anew, to wage a war or to seek refuge. These and any of a thousand other proddings of the sharp stick would send travelers out on the road.

Before long, humankind had been whipped into a frenzy of wandering, one that has never let up. And nowadays, with technology and low cost combining to create a perfect storm of wanderlust, we see the results: the vast Lunar New Year crowds at a Chinese railway station, the lethal scrums at the hajj in Mecca, the endless security lines at Heathrow and Kennedy and Sheremetyevo, all vivid testimony to the unanticipated backwash of our pathological desire for ceaseless mobility. And yet just why, fretted Blaise Pascal back in the 17th century, when all of this seemed to get going, why the urge to engage in so much movement? Why all this transnational Brownian motion? Surely all of man’s ills must stem, the philosopher wrote, from his simple inability to remain quiet and alone, serenely in the comfort of his own home.

When confronted with this season’s tottering tower of new travel literature, I found it easy to sympathize with poor Pascal. Well over 40 books arrived on my desk, ranging widely in their geographical reach, but most nonetheless possessed of a certain predictability — an urgent need to escape here, a frantic need to impress there, a pressing need to inquire and explore and explain what goes on in the faraway. Only a handful could possibly be chosen for a closer look. A small sampling of those that, with profound regret, had to be left by the wayside, may indicate the scale and manic scope of this tarantella of travel writing [...]

In the end, I sifted what I thought might be some pearls from the sand. And there’s an irony in my first choice, one Pascal would like, since Philip Marsden’s RISING GROUND: A Search for the Spirit of Place (University of Chicago, $27.50) doesn’t require the author to venture very far from his home in Cornwall, yielding a travel book that involves little real, physical travel. And yet Marsden’s essays about landscape and history and the habitations and habitants of that mysterious, familiar but deeply unknown fingerlike peninsula at England’s lower left-hand, seagirt end are deft and exquisite, filled with the learning of a supremely well-traveled man and composed in a lilting, finely chased prose....

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