Ralph Waldo Emerson, high priest of American letters and patron saint of homebodies everywhere, reserved his harshest words for the voyager. Travel, he famously wrote, "is a fool's paradise," a sickness that afflicts those who don't realize that wisdom is inward. Instead of broadening the mind, travel narrows it.
If Emerson is correct, my mind must be so narrow by now that I could fit my head through a standard-size letter slot. I have measured out my adult life in passport pages, acquiring stamps from most countries that exist and several that do not. I have written about dozens of them, and each time I produce what one might call "travel writing," I can hear Ralph Waldo sneering that I'd be better off saving my plane fare.
Travel, of course, has its uses. The travel writer at his best is a sort of prophet, reporting realities abroad that don't register at home until sometimes much later. Travel writing is a way of seeing the world through the eyes of one who has the time and luxury to look at it directly, rather than through the distortions of propagandists and wishful thinkers. In 1974, when Paul Theroux traveled through Iran on the journey that produced The Great Railway Bazaar, he found the country loaded with howling religious crazies -- a truer prerevolutionary portrait, he later pointed out, than the one offered by the patronizing scolds on the payroll of the Shah, who disputed his account and claimed Tehran was a reliable U.S. friend with an inexhaustible appetite for Western military hardware. And when the travel writer is not prophesying our futures, he is recording pasts we never knew. Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote with 40 years' hindsight about a trip across Europe as a teen, underestimated the Nazi menace when he was bumping steins with the SS in the Hofbräuhaus. But his depiction of the frail monarchies of Eastern Europe, on the verge of being crushed into dust by the twin juggernauts of Nazism and communism, is the best we will ever have.
But we are now at a low tide in the powers of travel writing. Travel has changed, and with it so has travel writing, overwhelmingly for the worse. An epidemic of Internet-age frivolity is doing its best to prove the Sage of Concord right: Call it Emerson's revenge. Where travelers once brought back invaluable stolen glances at places that the rest of us could only guess about, the new breed combines the worst of the traveler and the worst of the homebody. The writer goes overseas but brings back news about a tedious inner crisis, leaving undisturbed any insights about the places visited. Eat, Pray, Love -- to take only the easiest target as an example -- is a whole memoir premised on the notion that even the most decadent, boring, and conventional kinds of travel somehow heal the soul and can turn a suburban ninny into a Herodotus or a Basho.