In today's world, when the farthest corner seems near enough to visit sooner or later, travel books serve not only as material for the imagination, but as enlightenment about places we've been or plan to go.
Vivid photographs and well-researched prose mark this year's collection of coffee-table travel books that take you over the high seas by tramp steamer (but you had better hurry for the experience of this vanishing mode of travel), or by rail across the living museum that is India, or meandering by the misty landscapes and seascapes of beautiful Scotland.
Tramp by Michael J. Krieger, photos by Judy Howard (Chronicle Books: $35; 143 pp.) tells of the last few old freighters that are being pushed off the edge of the world by modern cargo ships and supertankers.
The remnants of this fleet are forced into the far corners of the maritime world. Their adventures chronicled here include the foggy fiords of Scandinavia, China's Yangtze River that stretches from the mountains of Tibet to the teeming harbor of Shanghai, the transportation of iron ore from the mines north of the Great Lakes to the steel furnaces of the Calumet region.
This is the tale of 21 freighters, from Istanbul to Rarotonga, the people who sail them and the cultures of the countries they visit, including a brief but tantalizing couple of pages on the clandestine work of smuggling . . . from the big business of drugs and weapons to more prosaic items such as liquor and cigarettes (to avoid taxes) and Western cosmetics and clothing bound for eager customers behind the Iron Curtain.
And speaking of transportation systems held over from days gone by, one learns that a third of all the steam locomotives still functioning on a daily basis chug along the railroad tracks of India, transporting more than 1 billion passengers a year. Rail Across India by Paul C. Pet, Geoffrey Moorhouse and Brian Hollingsworth, with photos by Paul C. Pet (Abbeville: $65; 220 pp.) is a visual feast of the subcontinent.
Moorhouse provides the historical overview, Hollingsworth the rail system expertise. Dutch photojournalist Pet provides the heart and soul of the book, its large pages rich with the visual tapestry of India, its crowds of people, its incredible poverty, its countryside that ranges from parched desert wastelands to thick pine forests.
Some of the loveliest words in the book come from an author credited only in the text, as Pet says, "from my wife Anja's diary." She writes: "There is no room for solitude, and therefore they see it as strange and pitiful when you are walking on your own." When most exasperated about the difficulties of their travels, she concludes, "One should yield oneself to the discomforts and enjoy the bizarre atmosphere you drifted into, sharing the resignation of the Indians who seem to have no trouble at all sleeping through the commotion of the night."
Scotland, the Place of Visions by Jan Morris, photos by Paul Wakefield (Potter: $24.95; 159 pp.) combines the talents of a renowned travel writer and one of Britain's top landscape photographers to produce a book of serene beauty, one that hints of old wars and sadness but focuses on the physical lushness of a place that is grand indeed.
Or is there just a hint of coldness, of tight-lipped and self-contained locals who mind their own business and would just as soon you did the same? "I asked an elderly fisherman how long he had been out. He looked up at me severely and responded: 'Have you any particular reason for wanting to know?' "
Another glimpse is of a fine country house that currently takes in guests to keep the fires fueled, a place of "slightly tenuous grandeur, where all the statutory tokens of country-house living are in abundance: open fires with parallel sofas, rather too many exquisitely arranged flowers, heads of stags shot by late baronial owners. . . ."
But charming glimpses they are, and the photos capture the constant interplay of gray and green that marks the nature of Scotland.
Quite a different world is encompassed in The Land of Israel, with an introduction by Heinrich Boell and photographs by Hilla and Max Jacoby (Thames & Hudson: $25; 174 pp.).
Quotes from the Scriptures enrich the views, along with a few thoughtful words from Boell and the Jacobys, but mainly this is another book of beautiful photographs, with just enough identification to make sense of a scene.
Max Jacoby notes in his preface, "I am surrounded by light, visual stimuli abound, and my eyes are overwhelmed with impressions." Missing from this collection of stunning pictures are the strife, the grief and the unresolved conflicts that are also a part of Israel's story. This is an Israel for tourists, enhanced by a strong sense of the biblical.