The British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, born on this day in 1915, sent this letter to Deborah Devonshire in October 1960, having completed a road trip through plenty of Eastern Europe. Read more of their letters in In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor. Read More
- Explaining the Internet’s Joan Didion obsession is a tricky thing: “In the crossover of feminism, fashion, and literary interests, there is a whole swathe of the internet where Didion is a staple reference. Her borscht recipe can be found on the website Brain Pickings, and her list of items to pack for reporting trips periodically crops up on style blogs … In 1989, she appeared in GAP ads with her twenty-three-year-old daughter, wearing black turtlenecks, and staring defiantly into the camera with only the barest suggestion of a smile. Last year, she wore huge black shades in ads for the French luxury goods brand Céline, which inspired devotion in unexpected places and in-depth analysis from the already devoted.” And yet this obsession seldom seems to extend to her political writing, which accounts for the bulk of her output—they only want her to write about herself. And what of that self? “To be so glamorously sensitive and beautiful that you have to be taken care of,” Pauline Kael once wrote, was the “ultimate princess fantasy.”
- This is peak road-trip season. If you’re not in a car right now, lighting out for the territories and exuding manifest destiny—well, it’s not too late. But don’t be all Fleetwood Mac about it. You cannot, in fact, go your own way. You can instead follow in the footsteps (tire tracks?) of writers past: Kerouac, Twain, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Wolfe …
- On second thought, stay home. It’s more or less impossible to be a good travel writer anyway. You risk falling into two camps: the Elizabeth Gilbert, interior psychodrama, “obnoxious white lady in brown places” camp, or the Bruce Chatwin, indomitable male, “colonialist’s baggage stuffed full with preconceived assumptions” camp. If you’re looking for role models, try Freya Stark and Dervla Murphy: “Stark was in the world with her writing, not above it, not in herself … Her writing restores humanity to people who have otherwise been stripped down to news reports, reduced to death tolls and photos of open-mouthed weeping. The secret to her success was listening to the people she visited and letting them tell the story. This shouldn’t be any secret. It should be what every travel writer does.”
- A man who speaks hardly a lick of French has triumphed in the Francophone Scrabble Championship having apparently memorized the entire French Scrabble Dictionary in just a few days. Nigel Richards, “the Tiger Woods of Scrabble,” regards words as “just combinations of letters,” like numbers: “He has learned no language logic, just a succession of letter sequences giving rise to words. In his head it’s binary: what draw (of letters) can make a scrabble, what draw can’t.”
- On James Purdy, who wanted to write stories that “bristled with impossibilities”: “In his novels and short fiction, possibility and potential are always compromised. There is neither transcendence nor transformation. His characters do not grow or develop; they dwindle and unravel … It’s hard to think of a contemporary writer whose work shares this sensibility, a cool elegance laid over extreme emotion. The most apt comparison may be Wes Anderson, whose films similarly feature casts of eccentrics, dialogue full of non sequiturs, deadpan humor, and unabashed farce.”
Hoarding books across the country.
Fourteen years ago, my mom bought herself a Volkswagen Jetta, and this Christmas she passed it on to me. My girlfriend Sheena and I did what anyone would: we packed our bags and set a course for Iowa.
What I mean is that we took an old-fashioned road trip, from Minneapolis to San Francisco, and Iowa City was our first port of call. If Sheena and I had set out in the summer we might have shot straight west into South Dakota and beyond, but in winter our rusting station wagon seemed about as likely to make it through the Rockies as to successfully invade Russia. Instead, we drove south through Iowa, Missouri, and Oklahoma, in search of warmer climes and easier roads. People sometimes complain that the Midwest is too flat, but that quality has its consolations. Mountains, like high heels, are attractive but impractical—especially in the snow. Read More
Brad Zellar’s writing has appeared in daily newspapers from Minnesota and in an expansive blog called Your Man for Fun in Rapidan; he has chapters and essays in collections like The 1968 Project and Twin Cities Noir, and occasionally he writes fiction, which he tells me he publishes “under an assortment of fake names.” But he’s most comfortable writing about photographs, as he did in the book Suburban World: The Norling Photos, and in his most recent project with the photographer Alec Soth, the LBM Dispatch.
Named for and printed by Soth’s limited-run publishing house, Little Brown Mushroom, the Dispatch reimagines the iconic American road-trip photography book as a series of small newspapers, each of which chronicles a quick trip Zellar and Soth have taken through a different state or territory. Previous Dispatches have covered Michigan, Ohio, and California’s “Three Valleys—Silicon, San Joaquin, and Death.” The most recent includes images and stories from the Texas Triangle.
I wanted to know about the writing process for the Dispatch, and how Zellar chooses the issues’ many quotations from historical and literary sources. But I was most curious to hear his thoughts on writing to accompany images. Not quite a photo-interpreter in the Berger/Sontag tradition (though he is a great writer in the “how to look” sense), Zellar embraces photography as a fan, and he’s not afraid to let images do the talking when necessary. In Zellar’s work, photos are windows, excuses for curiosity—above all, the Dispatch embodies the devotion to stay curious.
A lot of your work, here and elsewhere, has accompanied photos. How does it affect your own writing to know that pictures will share its space? How does it make you think about your purpose as a writer?
The public library in my hometown had a terrific collection of photo books when I was a kid. I was an obsessive reader, but it was from those photo books that I formed my first real impressions about what the world looked like. And they played a huge role in cementing a resolve that I very much wanted to travel and see that world. I used to spend hours hunched over William Eggleston’s Guide, the first Diane Arbus monograph, and a book of vernacular American photographs called The Champion Pig.
From an early age I used to write stories based on photographs, and I’ve never really stopped. I have a large collection of found photos, I like to take photos myself, and I just get a kick out of looking at pictures and trying to animate them with words. I love that photos represent so many possible realities, and they’re sort of a laboratory for exploring points of view. You have the people in the pictures, obviously, each of them a different voice with a different version of whatever story is being told, you have the people outside the frame or lurking in the peripheries, and then, of course, you have the photographer. Read More
- Perfumes that smell like books? Depends on the book, really!
- Prom dresses made of newspapers? Depends on the broadsheet, really!
- An MRI with John Jeremiah Sullivan.
- A study finds that literature increases empathy.
- Thomas Jefferson’s gardening journal.
- The best audiobooks for a road trip.