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National Geographic Travels on Literary Paths

July 19, 2002|TIM RUTTEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you are one of those people whose connection with the National Geographic ended when death came for the elderly aunt who sent you a gift subscription every Christmas, brace yourself.

The proper, yellow-bordered journal of the learned society founded in 1888 "for the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge" has become the launching pad for one of American publishing's interesting multimedia projects. One of the effort's surprising products is the feature film, "K-19: The Widowmaker," which will open in more than 3,000 theaters across the country today. Co-produced by National Geographic Films, it stars Harrison Ford as the captain of a doomed-from-the-drawing board Soviet nuclear submarine and is based on a television documentary the society made in 1996. Simultaneously, the National Geographic's television division has sold a fresh factual look at the K-19 incident to the MSNBC cable network, and the society's publishing arm has put a film tie-in volume on bookstore shelves.

But the real star among the National Geographic's energetic new projects is its National Geographic Directions, a series of "literary travel memoirs" launched earlier this year. More than 30 authors--poets, playwrights and novelists--already have agreed to participate in the series, which will publish six to 10 titles each year.

Volumes so far have included Oliver Sacks on a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, with fellow fern enthusiasts and W.S. Merwin's "Mays of Ventadorn," a dazzling evocation of the Provencal troubadour tradition. Among the forthcoming books of particular interest is Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet's "South of the Northeast Kingdom," a personal reflection on the rural central Vermont region where he has lived for the last 40 years. The text is illustrated with the author's own affecting black-and-white photographs.

"Writing," Mamet says in his book, "is a magnificently solitary occupation. One works by oneself all day long, wondering, dreaming, supposing. All attitudes to which Vermont conduces ... and perhaps the profound order of the environment seduces, as much as does the solitude, to contemplation." Elizabeth Newhouse, who edits the series for National Geographic Books, says: "We were looking for something to do other than big illustrated travel books. Then we realized that we had never done anything of a serious literary nature and that we loved the format of the Penguin Lives series,"--compact biographies by distinguished writers. "With that inspiration, we thought it would be wonderful to get famous writers to write of the places they care about--places they travel to, want to travel to or treasure in their own neighborhoods."

American travel writing never has enjoyed quite the cachet of its British counterpart, and that neglect has obscured the fundamentally different perspectives each brings to the genre. American travel writers tend to make place their central preoccupation; for historical antecedent, think Thoreau's "A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers." The central British preoccupation is the reality--physical and existential--of travel itself; think Chaucer and his pilgrims on the way to Canterbury. What they share is the quality the father of English literature ascribed to his "philosophers:"

And gladly would he

lerne and gladly teche.

"One of the joys of this series for us," said National Geographic's Newhouse, "is very much its sense of place. We also value very highly the strong author's voice in each book. The writer is very much a part of the narrative and, in some way, the first subject of each book. And, of course, that means that each of these books is and will be very different from the others." For example, she said, "Mamet's book is a completely Mamet-like work."

Among the other volumes New- house anticipates "are Garry Wills' book on the University of Virginia, which was designed by Thomas Jefferson. John Edgar Wideman has gone to Martinique. His companion was a woman with whom he is involved, which took him in a very personal way into an exploration of Creole culture. Louise Erdrich is writing about the Ojibway Indians of Ontario by traveling to their remote sacred places around the Great Lakes. Anna Quindlen is doing literary London for us, and Jamaica Kincaid, who is one of our finest garden writers, is going to Nepal to look at plants."

There is even a Los Angeles book in the offing. Novelist and short-story writer A.M. Homes--"The Safety of Objects" and the forthcoming "Things You Should Know"--"is doing L.A. from the perspective of the Chateau Marmont hotel," said Newhouse. "She's out there now putting the finishing touches on it. I'm not sure what she's going to come up with, but it will be interesting.

Work in Progress

Diane Leslie, a novelist and short-story writer, is author of "Fleur de Leigh's Life of Crime":

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