How to Talk About Places You’ve Never Been – Book Review

bayard9781620401378How to Talk About Places You’ve Never Been: On the Importance of Armchair Travel by Pierre Bayard

When I first read the title, I thought that it was a humor book. But it isn’t. Bayard’s book praises writers and “adventurers” who’ve not been to the places they talk about.

He claims that the role of fiction in the travelogue discourages people from traveling. They learn what they wanted to know about a place. Why put out the effort? Really?

How far did Marco Polo get? Maybe no further than Venice, according to Bayard. And how about Margaret Mead? She did go to Samoa and wrote Coming of Age in Samoa, which made her world famous. But according to Bayard, she didn’t stay with the local population for long. Therefore she came up with conclusions that Samoan teenagers were much freer with sex than their American counterparts. This was refuted in the 1980s.

Bayard spends too much time with Jayson Blair, the NY Times journalist who faked his stories. He was caught, shamed and fired but Bayard seems to redeem him. Same with Rosie Ruiz, the woman who took the NYC subway during the New York City marathon. If you read the chapter on Ruiz’ ruse in a certain way, you can say that Bayard understands and even condones her behavior.

Rev War Patriot at the Battle of Kings Mountain
Rev War Patriot at the Battle of Kings Mountain

The main reason I read the book cover to cover is that Bayard seems to explain and even praise the exact opposite of what I do. I won’t write about some place I haven’t been to.

Even if I get most of my information from the web and think I understand it, I need to go there. He talks about the spirit of the place.

What you can see when you travel may be “disconnected fragments of reality” or “common places devoid of interest”, he says. But I disagree. Common places are interesting, if you spend time in them. I’ve been to many, many national park service battlefields, by now. And they’re all different and interesting.

You got to get out more, Prof. Bayard. I’ll save armchair travel for when I’m really old.

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