The best books that capture the complexities of writing about the real world

Tim Hannigan Author Of The Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre
By Tim Hannigan

Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by nonfiction since my teens, by the idea of books about things that really happened. Fiction gets all the kudos, all the big prizes, all the respect. But as far as I’m concerned, trying to wrestle the unruly matter of reality onto the page is much more challenging – imaginatively, technically, ethically – than simply making things up! My book The Travel Writing Tribe is all about those challenges – and about the people, the well-known travel writers, who have to confront them every time they put pen to paper.

I wrote...

The Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre

By Tim Hannigan,

Book cover of The Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre

What is my book about?

Where can travel writing go in the twenty-first century? Author and lifelong travel writing aficionado Tim Hannigan sets out in search of this most venerable of genres, hunting down its legendary practitioners and confronting its greatest controversies. Is it ever okay for travel writers to make things up, and just where does the frontier between fact and fiction lie? What actually is travel writing, and is it just a genre dominated by posh white men? What of travel writing’s queasy colonial connections?

Travelling from Monaco to Eton, from wintry Scotland to sun-scorched Greek hillsides, Hannigan swills beer with the indomitable Dervla Murphy, sips tea with the doyen of British explorers, delves into the diaries of Wilfred Thesiger and Patrick Leigh Fermor, and gains unexpected insights from Colin Thubron, Samanth Subramanian, Kapka Kassabova, William Dalrymple and many others. But along the way he realises how much is at stake: can his own love of travel writing survive this journey?

The books I picked & why

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The Vulnerable Observer

By Ruth Behar,

Book cover of The Vulnerable Observer

Why this book?

Ruth Behar is an academic, but this deeply personal book is nothing like your typical academic treatise. It’s part memoir, part essay collection, part manifesto for a more ethical – and more honest – way of recording the world and your own interactions with it. What Behar calls for is the “vulnerable observation” of the title: a recognition of the way your own personal and cultural baggage colours your way of seeing, and of the way that you, the writer, are always part of the story. What this leads to is the realisation that objectivity is not just unattainable, but probably undesirable. Behar aims her clarion call at her own profession, anthropology, but what she says applies as much to journalists, travel writers and anyone else who writes about the real world.

Stuart: A Life Backwards

By Alexander Masters,

Book cover of Stuart: A Life Backwards

Why this book?

“Middle-class academic writes nonfiction about homeless substance abuser” – that sounds like a recipe for overweening earnestness at best, or at worst an exploitative catastrophe. But right from the first line of this astonishing book you know that the author isn’t entirely in control, that the subject, his troubled friend Stuart Shorter, has agency in these pages in a way he seldom did elsewhere in life. It’s a gut-crunchingly sad story, but also often very funny – which, you get the feeling, is exactly how Stuart would have wanted it.

Stealing with the Eyes

By Will Buckingham,

Book cover of Stealing with the Eyes

Why this book?

Since the 1980s, anthropologists have been confronting the fraught ethics of representing other people, other places, other cultures much more directly than their counterparts in journalism or travel writing. Will Buckingham didn’t stick with anthropology, and this book about his fieldwork with woodcarvers in eastern Indonesia – written two decades after the events it describes – goes some way to explaining why. It’s wry, funny and thought-provoking. The title refers to the theft committed by every travelling writer.

The Saddest Pleasure

By Moritz Thomsen,

Book cover of The Saddest Pleasure

Why this book?

Great travel writing requires serious honesty – and there’s no more honest book than this. An aging, crotchety American sets out on a sentimental journey through Brazil after a forced departure from his adopted home in Ecuador. You start out thinking that he’s been the victim of some sort of sketchily explained injustice, but as he travels, he gradually tears more and more strips off himself and your perspective changes. Brutally honest. Thomsen is also remarkably open about his own writerly craft: “let me shift my characters around a bit” he says at one point, revealing the fundamental tension of nonfiction – between faithfulness to narrative and faithfulness to reality.

For Love & Money

By Jonathan Raban,

Book cover of For Love & Money

Why this book?

Jonathan Raban’s nonfiction books take travel writing to another level. He has a special mastery of the intersection of self, journey, place, and narrative. This collection – of essays, short memoirs, travel pieces, and more – isn’t necessarily his best book (that would probably be Passage to Juneau); but it’s full of brilliant reflections on the writing life, and on the challenges facing the writer as a craftsperson. There’s a particularly memorable section on the difficulties of transferring real-world dialogue onto the page. “You isolate the speaker’s tics and tricks of speech, his keywords,” Raban says, “and make him say them slightly more often than he did in fact; you give him small bits of stage business to mark his silences; you invent lines of dialogue for yourself to break up a paragraph of solid talk that looks too long to be believable. You are trespassing, perhaps, into writing fiction, but the fiction will still be truer to the man and to the occasion than the literal transcription.”

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