Dear Larry: I read your essay about Travelers’ Tales titled “The Importance of Stories,” and as an ardent traveler and writer, I felt you overlooked one valuable point regarding the virtue of your books. It is this: the stories you publish aren’t just for travelers, but for people who can’t travel—perhaps because they don’t have the money, or the time (particularly in America’s two-week-vacation world). For so many families, the farthest they may get every year is a two-hour trip up the freeway to a state park for a barbecue with the kids, or maybe it’s the annual Christmas pilgrimage to see the in-laws in Schenectady. Frankly, as much as I enjoy the typical destination piece in your local newspaper, they are written for people who can get away from it all—for those who’ll carve a mental notch in their brains reminding them that a year from now (or two or three) they just haveto go to, oh let’s say, outer Liechtenstein. Unfortunately, for many people, they may only get one trip to Europe their entire life, and for them it truly is the experience of a lifetime. Some, on the other hand, are scared to travel—perhaps because they’re creatures of habit and such outings interrupt a life of routine. Others are alone, having no one to travel with, and just aren’t built with the heart or courage necessary to charge off on a solo adventure. Then there are those who suffer from wanderlust, but regrettably have a spouse who refuses to travel farther than the corner 7-11. Still others are desperately jealous of travelers, and would love to do the same—if they just didn’t have the kids to worry about, or a parent who wasn’t ailing, or a job that wasn’t so demanding, or precarious finances that kept them state-bound.With personal essays, we are their eyes and ears. We travel the world for those who can’t, reporting back on our various “scouting missions.” When I dispatch my travel reports from abroad, I don’t just write for my fellow travelers, I write for others who can’t travel, those who, in all likelihood, may never get to that corner of the world, but who are intrigued just the same. It’s just a wild guess, but I’d say that for every person out there who can travel, there are ten others who’d love to do the same but can’t. And that’s just in our country, the richest, most indulgent nation in the world. Think how frustrating it must be for those in Japan working six days a week with only a week off every year, or for a family in South Africa whose dream is to one day simply visit America.
I believe that personal essays, far more than destination pieces, inspire people to travel. Consider movies, for example. How many people have longed to visit Austria and Sound-of-Music country because of how much they loved the film? To visit that stunning alpine countryside they saw in the picture (perhaps their only exposure to such things)? In truth, movies are personal essays. And any tourist board worth its travel lit would die to have something like The Sound of Music filmed within their borders. Even my trip to Jordan next month, I have to admit, is spurred by the majesty and magnificence of David Lean’sLawrence of Arabia. Thanks to Peter O’Toole and company, I want to sleep under the stars with the Bedouins, travel by camel across seas of sand, be overwhelmed by the wondrous desolation of Wadi Rum. Like film, I believe personal essays encourage this primal wanderlust and the desire to experience our world anew. The only difference is, it doesn’t cost 100 million dollars to write one (even though it may feel like it sometimes).
The importance of stories, in part, is in the gift of understanding and being a part of a world we can’t reach—allowing us to experience the myriad variations mankind has devised of simply living life. So, keep the titles coming, not just for all of us travelers out there, but for all those who, at present, can only afford to dream.
All my best,
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