It started with meeting a wolf expert, grew stronger with a bookshelf reorg in which I rediscovered my once-loved photo books on Africa, and swelled into grand proportions after I started watching a little show called...Man vs. Wild. Say what you will about Bear Grylls and how likely it is that he is truly in danger during each shoot and so on (a quick search of YouTube on this topic would render anyone a skeptic in this regard), his fascination with the inner journey one goes through while trying to survive in the wild struck a deep nerve in me and reminded me of the epic journey literature that my father introduced to me as a child.
Growing up near Jack London Square, perhaps it was a no-brainer that the first man vs. wild literature I ever read was Jack London's Call of the Wild. At the time I distinctly remember it all being a bit intense and rugged and...something possibly more suited to boys. Full disclosure, even Black Beauty was a lot of violence for me to handle at that time. Either way, I moved on to other literature and never looked back. I had torrid summer affairs with Clive Cussler's grocery store novels (my grandmother's term, not mine) and although I knew then that the writing was subpar, I gravitated towards his stories that were less spy-ops, more adventure in the wild.
I had a brief spell of wanting to move to Africa to study zebras and then I spent two decades ignoring all this entirely.
Yet a few back to back episodes of Man vs. Wild (thank you Netflix Watch Instantly) and all the power of epic travel writing and intense journeys that challenge everything we know and believe about ourselves and the vast natural landscapes that cover our planet came roaring back. I'm not sure if this renewed interest is more escapism from daily worries or if it is purely about the journey and the animals along the way, which was certainly the fascination when I was younger. As I've spent the last several years of my life focused on new, new fiction, my overflowing bookshelves afforded me very little in the way of a quick fix once I determined that I wanted to read some epic journeys through difficult landscapes.
The first book I plucked from my shelves a few weeks ago was Rick Ridgeway's The Shadow of Kilimanjaro: On Foot Across East Africa. I'm hooked. So hooked, that I'm already casting about for what I'll read next. It was in this casting about that I disovered the vast array of travel writing - classic and brand spanking new - that I've ignored entirely with my ever-vigilant focus on new fiction. Quick scans of travel writing sections revealed Paul Theroux's books (ahhh, so that's what he does) and so many others that I felt like a right dolt for having missed out entirely (and possibly thumbed my nose at, if I'm being honest) on this genre of writing.
The good news: I've found it now and it is fair to say I'll be exploring the world of epic journey literature for quite awhile. The tradition is so rich, the landscapes so vast, the life altering realizations so abundant. I've got a few books on my radar to read next (Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux tops the list) and I'd like to consider this post a prelude to a longer discussion about this genre of literature. In my years of book blogging (and I'm stunned to find it has been four), we've never had this discussion. In all of our emails and comments and texts and tweets back and forth about craft and gorgeous writing and novels that have changed us, we've never covered any of this. Why is that? Is it a literature we've deemed somehow lesser than the great fiction we celebrate? Why do these journey stories resonate for me now in a way they never did before and have all of you been steeped in this literature for years and I'm a late arrival? These are just the first questions of what I hope will be an ongoing dialogue here at Counterbalance.
I'm oh so looking forward to it.