Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Most Boring Country in the World

As readers of my book reviews may have noticed, I have a habit of reading books about, or from, a country before visiting it. Since I'll be in Denmark in September, I'm of a mood to find books that will help me understand the country better.

I was at the Harvard Book Store this AM, and looked around their notable travel section. Nothing. Barely even a guidebook, much less literature or travel writing.

But I did notice a pattern: most travel books (with a few predictable exceptions; more on that below) seem to be written about places outside the temperate zone. It is perhaps unsurprising: the travel writing genre thrives on the life in extremis, and your odds of this are better if you're either parched or frozen to death. If the odds of your dying are nil, publishers don't appear to be interested.

Intrigued, after lunch, I visited the Globe Corner Bookstore, a fabulous store dedicated to travel. I knew there would be too many books there (and I would have too little time) to validate my conjecture, but surely they would have what I was looking for. Helpfully, the Globe combines travel guides with related writing, which is generally an most agreeable arrangement. But I again came up short: Peter H√łeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow and a work by Karen Blixen, whom you better know as Isak Dinesen. But Blixen was writing about...Africa! Oh dear.

Later that evening we stopped by the Wellesley Booksmith, on the main street in Wellesley, MA, just around the corner from the college. Pattern: dead on. Every store had a few exceptions, such as a large number of books devoted to Ireland or France—for fairly obvious reasons. But even by this standard Wellesley seemed extreme: I'd guess that about a quarter of the books were about France, and a large percentage of those were specifically about Paris (this is not a given, with the strength of the year-in-Provence subgenre). Please infer your own stereotypes.

But this brings us back to Denmark. I hope my Danish friends don't take this poorly: There's something to be said for not being noticed. At the very least, it seems to mean that your weather isn't extreme enough to kill anyone off. The rest of the world should be so lucky. Perhaps people less fortunate dream about a life as placid.

I'll watch a few more Dogme 95 movies, I guess (though how many can one take?).

Addendum: Olivier Danvy kindly pointed me to the travel section on Amazon. I was embarassed to not have thought of that already, and wondered what treasures I would find there. Well, I got through the first three pages of entries under Books > Travel > Europe > Denmark. In numbers:

Two relevant items: a book about Hans Christian Andersen (A River, a Town, a Poet), and Mary Wollstonecraft's letters written during a short residence in Scandinavia.

Travel guides (a term I use broadly to include maps, language guides, and generic national guides): 23 to Denmark; 21 to Copenhagen; 6 to Scandinavia; one cycling map.

One book I couldn't classify: Journey through Denmark (travelogue?).

Novels: two copies of Out of Africa, and one book by Hans Christian Andersen.

Other travel guides: Netherlands (2), Finland (7), St. Petersburg (1), Tibet (1), the US state of Maine (1).

Finally, Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved (1), Appointment in Jerusalem (1), and books about adventures in mountains and/or ice but not set in Denmark (3).

So, I'm afraid it only reinforces my point. Two (or three) books of the kind I was looking for, compared against four books in the fire-and-ice genre, all set elsewhere.


Michael Greenberg said...

Perhaps Denmark is so interesting that you don't need a guidebook; simply being in the country is a great and worthwhile trip.

At least that's what my Danish officemate suggests.

Anonymous said...

"simply being in the country is a great and worthwhile trip"...yeah, right! Denmark is boring, dude. Don't try to promote it by uttering these big words. Come on, face it! It's just cheap marketing: Danes are boring, bored and coward.