In Travels with Herodotus, the Polish traveller-reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski remarked that "other cultures are mirrors in which we can see ourselves, thanks to which we understand ourselves better – for we cannot define our own identity until having confronted that of others, as comparison", eloquently summarising what makes a great travel narrative.
Bill Burford compiled the first "Travel Writing" issue of Granta in 1983, and the magazine soon acquired a reputation for promoting this literary form. The New Granta Book of Travel, an anthology that includes writers from Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin to Lavinia Greenlaw and Rory Stewart, carries on the tradition.
What's particularly interesting is how it illuminates the diversity of modern travel. In "Arrival" we have an asylum seeker's first experience of coming to Britain. Albino Ochero-Okello's poignant tale turns the idea of travel for pleasure on its head. For a refugee, travel is a means of survival.
Then there are the more anthropological dissections, such as Andrew Hussey's provocative analysis of the immigrant banlieues in "The Paris Intifada", in which he describes "the otherness of exclusion, of the repressed of the fearful and the despised".
Most of us travel for leisure but, as Jonathan Raban points out in his introduction, "travel" has its roots in "travail" and "trepalium" – an ancient Roman instrument of torture. Sometimes a holiday can turn to horror, as illustrated by John Borneman's evocative account of the tsunami that devastated his Sri Lankan beach idyll. The collection also includes unexpected journeys such as James Hamilton-Paterson's descent to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean and Andrew O'Hagan's description of the Glaswegian sludge boats that double up as cruise ships for the elderly.
It's disappointing that there are not more female writers included – particularly because two memorable pieces come from women: Decca Aitkenhead provides a damning indictment of sex tourism in Thailand, while Wendell Steavenson gives a voice to a Sunni insurgent in Baghdad.
Renowned for his "literary report-age", Kapuscinski is the writer who, for me, best sums up the allure of travel, but also its inherent frustrations. In "The Lazy River", he describes the alienation of over travelling, to the extent that "we are no longer able to connect meaningfully with any image, view or landscape, with any event or human face".
The upsurge in global travel means that those writing in the field have to do more than convey the essence of a remote place or people. This inspiring anthology celebrates the genre's literary aspirations, as well as reminding us of the myriad ways in which exploring difference, even for armchair travellers, broadens minds.
Lucy Popescu is the author of the ethical travel guide The Good Tourist published by Arcadia BooksReuse content