In 1946, the famed English novelist Evelyn Waugh -- a writer, like many of his generation, who funded his literary life by scribbling bemused accounts of overland treks to the Empire's far reaches -- predicted, "I do not expect to see many travel books in the near future." Waugh made his prediction at a time when Europe's old empires were crumbling and jet aircrafts, it seemed clear, were about to end travel as he knew it. But even in a century marked by dozens of famously false literary pronouncements, his forecast stands out as supremely wrong. Not only did a new generation of writers after Waugh -- from Ryszard Kapuscinski to V.S. Naipaul to Jan Morris -- prove that travel books still had a place in a post-imperial world, their prose was far more empathic and penetrating than anything that had come before. Their best books didn't merely breathe new life into an old genre, but provided accounts of our tumultuous age far more vibrant and lasting than any work of dry policy writing or historian's tome.
For decades, travel writers and foreign-policy types have had it in for each other. Foreign-policy writers dilate on grand structures, statecraft, and power imbalances, viewing themselves as lofty, farsighted visionaries. Meanwhile, travel writers, in search of minute daily texture in the places they visit, aren't necessarily looking to make broader political arguments. For travel writers, policy wonks are divorced from global life as it's lived, the reality of the street; for the wonks, travel writers seem naive or small-bore.
Of course travel writing has never been separated from politics. Herodotus himself, among the West's seminal thinkers on international relations, was also his era's travel writer par excellence. The roots of the modern literary genre lie in early explorers' logs -- from Marco Polo's accounts of the spice road to Walter Raleigh's Guyana diary -- which played key roles in shaping how Europe's states engaged the world. British travel writers of the interwar years like Waugh and Graham Greene may not have seen their accounts of "remote" places so explicitly tied to imperial policies. But much of their books' unique frisson derived from flirtations with an old colonialist worldview: describing colorful lands and colored denizens with a mix of revulsion and attraction, pitched to repressed Brits on their moist isle.
More recently, the world has been forced into the realization -- long understood by the best travel writers -- that what's geographically distant can't be ignored or held away as "exotic." The signal geopolitical event of our time -- 9/11 -- was enabled by globalization's emblematic technologies (the Internet, jetliners) and carried out by a small group of individuals raised in "remote" cultures. Increasingly, it's an obvious truth that choices made by peoples and nations everywhere may transform the planet's societies in cataclysmic ways. And so the traditional domain of travel writers -- the texture of everyday life; cultures, belief systems, and personal climes -- has suddenly become interesting to a whole new audience.