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Assembling My Atheneum: National Geographic Directions

July 20, 2011

If I had unlimited funds, which authors would I want to see filling my bookshelves? That question originally arose from my musings about my home library, and I decided to start a new series to answer it. In Assembling My Atheneum, I’ll discuss the authors whose entire works I’d love to possess, as well as which books of theirs I’ve read, which I already own, and which I’d recommend to those wanting to give them a try. If you’re curious, you can see everyone I’ve featured so far.

Rather than featuring an author or translator today, I thought I’d share a publisher line. I first discovered National Geographic Directions in 2009 when I read Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks. I love Sacks, and it was fun to see him writing in a different ‘context’! I noted at the time that there was a series, but I didn’t read another one until the following year when I picked up Jamaica Kincaid’s Among Flowers (they’re not all botanically themed, I swear). I loved that one too, but I was already a Kincaid fan. So it wasn’t until I finished Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich last week that I knew for sure I was in love with the series; after finishing it, I promptly popped over to my library site and put Imaginary London and A Writer’s House in Wales on hold. Lucky for me, that leaves me with a lot of titles still to explore! (And as someone who often has mixed reactions to travelogues, it’s a relief to have a dependable source.)

From what I can tell, National Geographic Directions publishes slim travel journals by already established authors who usually write in other fields/genres. The books tend to be quite personal and ‘raw,’ which is one of my favourite parts. It really seems as if I have a direct line to each author’s emotions and thoughts as they explore, and I can follow their thought processes as they veer off on little digressions. Also, every book has included some charming line sketches illustrating some passages, which I love. I also love that they’re short, the nonfiction equivalent of a novella: as much as I love my big books, it’s quite nice to be able to pick up one of these, learn all about a new place, and finish it in the same afternoon. And I think the size allows the authors to keep things personal; without the space to lay out and bolster a thesis, there’s permission to just embrace in a completely subjective viewpoint. Ultimately, that lets me get lost in the book and travel along with the author, which is always a boon!

The physical editions of the books are lovely as well: I already mentioned the included sketches, and their size is satisfyingly compact. The cover art is striking, and the pages have a nice feel to them. This makes it all the harder to return them to the library. ;) I’ve yet to get any of the series for my own bookshelves, but perhaps I’ll get lucky at a library book sale or thrifting sometime soon. And a quick search of AbeBooks.com reveals a few of the titles for under $5. I think I know what my next mini-splurge will be!

If you’re interested in giving the series a go, I’d recommend either the Erdrich or the Sacks: I can see both appealing to everyone; book lovers in particular will probably fall for the Erdrich. I loved the Kincaid as well, but she’s an idiosyncratic writer who share her own faults/problems without any apology and her opinions without any concessions. Her upfront honesty about culture shock, her dislike for camping (while on a multiweek trek), and focus on plants rather than, say, the Nepalese people (e.g.: she gives her porters nicknames rather than learning their names), might not be for everyone. That being said, it was going on the emotional rollercoaster with her that made Among Flowers such a good read for me; as someone who also doesn’t love camping, I loved how upfront she was, and I came away inspired. I imagine many of you pricked up your ears at the mention of Imaginary London; I’m picking it up at the library tomorrow so I’ll read it and report back. ;) And if you’ve already read other titles from the series I haven’t mentioned here, feel free to recommend away!

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2011 6:21 am

    The Sacks looks really interesting…

  2. July 20, 2011 12:59 pm

    I’m not familiar with this series, so thanks very much for sharing it! I like Jamaica Kincaid’s writing, so would probably read that one, bearing in mind your caveats (using nicknames rather than names for her guides sounds pretty horrific!).

    By the way I love your idea for Assembling an Atheneum. I think it’s the secret (or not so secret) desire of every book lover to have a massive, no-expenses-spared home library. I can picture mine in my head, even though I don’t have the house to put it in yet. Mine would include Milan Kundera, Jorge Luis Borges and Kazuo Ishiguro for sure. I was interested in your choice of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as well – I’ve only read one of her books, but absolutely loved it, so she might well make it into my library as well.

    • July 22, 2011 3:02 pm

      I can’t remember if she actually addressed her guides by the nicknames or if she just uses them in her writing. The latter would make it not so bad, right? ;)

      I’m glad you enjoy the AMA series: I love Ishiguro as well! I loved Kundera in high school; haven’t read much of him in ages. And I’ve yet to really connect with Borges…one of these days.

  3. July 20, 2011 1:27 pm

    Beautiful addition to your Atheneum, Eva! I love the covers of both the books that you have mentioned. This series looks really wonderful!

  4. July 20, 2011 3:15 pm

    These sound fascinating, I will check them out!

  5. July 20, 2011 3:33 pm

    Eva, thanks for letting us know about this series! I’m hoping that one of my libraries carry any of the books.

  6. July 20, 2011 4:50 pm

    This series sounds great! I’ll have to see if any of them are available at my library. If I could have my own private library, I would have a HUGE travel memoir section.

    Just found your blog and am really enjoying your reviews. Thanks! –Rayna

    • July 22, 2011 3:05 pm

      Hi Rayna! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. :D Do you have any favourite travel memoirs you’d like to rec? I only starting reading them a few years ago, so I’m not well read in the area yet.

      • July 22, 2011 6:12 pm

        I’d definitely recommend Bill Bryson if you’re looking for a funny travel memoir – A Walk in the Woods is my favorite so far. It’s about his attempt to walk the whole Appalachian Trail. A few years ago I read and loved Alice Steinbach’s Without Reservations, in which she writes postcards to her home address (reproduced in color in the hardcover edition) to remind herself of experiences and sights she doesn’t want to forget. And then last year I read The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner, which is not completely about travel but focuses on why certain countries are happier than others. It wasn’t the most entertaining travel book I’ve read, but it brought up some really interesting points. Sorry, long answer!

        And I just checked Imagined London out of the library and requested Books and Islands – thanks for bringing this series to my attention!

        –Rayna

  7. July 20, 2011 8:48 pm

    I work around the corner from National Geographic’s museum in DC. I should checkout the store one of these days. I know they sell books over there. :-)

  8. July 21, 2011 7:41 pm

    I’ve never heard about these before. They sound lovely and I will be looking out for them now.

  9. July 22, 2011 1:35 pm

    This series sounds really interesting, thanks for letting me know about it.

  10. July 22, 2011 7:50 pm

    The Natl Geographic Destinations series sounds wonderful – I wonder why they haven’t been given more exposure?! I’m surprised that they don’t have a more iconic/recognizable/branded cover. Hmm, will look into the Erdrich … thanks!

  11. July 26, 2011 1:09 pm

    These sound incredible! Though they aren’t travel books, per se, have you checked out Europa Editions books? They feature voices from all different countries – kind of gives you similar flavors of these different cultures and countries. (Elegance of the Hedgehog was one of them)

  12. August 14, 2014 2:19 am

    I saw a review of the Oliver Sacks book yesterday and added it to my to read list on library thing and then spent breakfast time exploring the series further which is how I came by your earlier post on this.

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