One of the best things about the Christmas break is the ability to immerse oneself in books without the endless distracting ping of arriving emails or the intervention of interminable committee meetings (and accompanying papers to wade through). This year I seem to have indulged myself in a feast of books on travel (loosely defined), from the largescale to the small. I will not comment here on Andrea Wulf’s new biography of Humboldt (maybe another time), but instead – in the words of that familiar old chestnut of an exam question – compare and contrast two very different books: one written by an American woman looking back at a lifetime of travel around the US, the other by a British poet contemplating 3 weeks hard slog by foot. One a vast array of stories and people, the other a microcosm. Reading both books simultaneously (a bad habit I know) I quickly realised which suited my temperament better.
The first book was Gloria Steinem’s On the Road. Although famous as a ‘feminist icon’ I don’t believe I have ever read any of her writings before. A familiar name but I had nothing to flesh the name out with content. Having read the book, which describes a lifetime of travel and campaigning on many fronts, I felt in deep awe at her spirit and determination. Starting at a time when women’s issues hadn’t hit the headlines she managed to inspire and provoke many people of different genders and races. I learned a lot about the issue of intersectionality and how the problems for women from different minority groups (native Indians as well as Hispanics and blacks) are magnified many times compared with the problems the white American majority face.
Of course, not all the problems she saw at the start of her campaigning life have vanished, although some issues are less troubling than they were. Nevertheless her 1971 speech to to Harvard Law School might still resonate in their hallowed halls:
‘With this humanist vision in mind, you can imagine how a female human being suffers at Harvard Law School. She spends much of her time feeling lonely, since male classmates often regard her as a freak. She spends the rest of it feeling mad as hell.’
Think Legally Blonde 30 years later. Is it completely different now? How many students in physics departments around the world would still recognize similar sentiments? However, whether or not you believe the world has radically changed, reading this book left me in no doubt Steinem has contributed to such improvement as has occurred in attitudes and awareness. It was a raw, honest book full of larger than life people with whom she shared the ‘campaign trail’.
The second book (Walking Away) was an account by the poet Simon Armitage of a three week trek along the West Country’s coastal path. Three weeks of living off other people’s kindness repaid by poetry readings each evening in venues of assorted kinds. Almost a diary of his trudging, with boots disintegrating and hips seizing up, it left me rather cold. At times his language was gorgeous in metaphor and simile and his alliteration alluring. Most of the time the cast of characters who wandered in and out of his narrative seemed one-dimensional verging on boring, the descriptions of the countryside laboured and flat. I know little about Armitage’s poetry (beyond the ‘catalytic poem that hangs on the side of a building in Sheffield University on the subject of air) but this book does not encourage me to learn more. I am relieved, having reached this conclusion, to find a review in the Guardian by a self-professed lover of his writing nevertheless arriving at very much the same conclusion regarding this particular book.
So why does the sweeping narrative appeal while the miniature leave me unmoved? It wasn’t the words themselves, since undoubtedly Steinem wrote factually and with passion rather than thinking up neat comparisons or choosing words of distinction. I think it is because I learned something from Steinem; I felt her determination and enthusiasm. Armitage on the other hand seemed to be writing because he’d promised his agent that he would (and no doubt it helped to pay the costs of the trip). He was writing because that’s what he does rather than because he was moved to put pen to this particular piece of paper. Perhaps because it was obviously a tough walk for him, the people he met did not provoke apparent interest for him so much as being necessary hosts; they came and went with great rapidity, to the extent that Armitage conveyed he often didn’t know their names (or even, probably, cared overmuch) let alone wanted to delve into their life stories.
In thinking about the comparison between these texts, I also realised I should contemplate my own writing style. Other recent conversations have provoked me to consider metaphor in my writing and the way I tackle my science. Whilst my first reaction was I never use metaphor in how I think about experiments, or how I write up my conclusions, I have realised this is false and ignorant. A recent post by Brigitte Nerlich highlights how much modern biology is steeped in metaphor to the extent one doesn’t even consciously notice what is happening. Physics, perhaps less so but it is still lurking in the way I mentally think about polymer chains moving; indeed the very word to describe this – reptation – has the explicit connotation of snake-like motion.
Nevertheless, posts on this blog do not abound with metaphor. Like Steinem I am more concerned with making my case, putting an argument across with clarity (I hope) rather than seeking out evocative phrases to illustrate a point, or wishing to use linguistic devices to embroider my analysis. Maybe I should spend more time worrying about the elegance of my language rather than the conclusion I wish my reader to draw. Or maybe not.
Reading Armitage’s prose, feeling it was duty done though with the odd flash of the literary brilliance he obviously possesses, I feel I fit into the Steinem camp. Not in the sense of being a life-time campaigner, but as someone who cares about what she does and the messages she gives; for whom the goal is what matters not simply the language chosen to reach that goal. Although I have always been rather allergic to being described as ‘passionate’, forced to make a choice I would rather be described as passionate than dispassionate – at least in most contexts – or worse, (again to quote the Guardian review of Armitage’s book) ‘prosaic’.
And, at the end of the two books, I have learned far more from Steinem – about intersectionality, as I say, about the world of women in the 1950s and 1960s as she encountered it at a time when I was still barely out of nappies. Armitage’s book did not even encourage me to think about trying the Cornish Coastal Path. Travel comes in many forms, as does travel-writing. Not all of it is good.