Jan Morris

Read February-November 2003

I've always enjoyed travel, but not always for the same reasons. With age I've realized that one point of travel is to try to distill a place down to its essence; to understand not what is there but what its residents see is there. National characters are too often (and too easily) the subject of stereotype, but they also help us study truths and the human condition.

I've been reading travel writing for some time, and invariably book blurbs have felt compelled to contrast whatever I'm holding in my hand to Jan Morris. After seeing her name a few dozen times, it became clear I had to go to the source. My first complete Morris book was this collection of essays about cities.

It's taken me nearly a calendar year to read this book, and mainly because I've been using it as an exercise in restraint. There's little I can say about Morris's writing that other admirers haven't already said. What makes the book for me is this. She describes two parts of the world I've lived in at length, and a few others I've experienced in at least a little depth. In each case, she seems to acquire as much depth of understanding in, oh, a week as I did over years. She's not ashamed to hang out with select crowds (the rich and snooty), but from these encounters and an astute observation she learns more than the Gen-X writer slumming it with the natives.

Rush to get this book, then read it very, very slowly. Like Wilder, Morris can make you want to linger for ages over single sentences.