The Best American Travel Writing 2008 – Anthony Bourdain

The Best American Travel Writing 2008 Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain is back in the news and press a lot right now.  With the release of both a posthumous book World Travel: An Irreverent Guide and the documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain trying to untangle this enigmatic character, all of the armchair speculators and therapists are free to expound on what exactly Bourdain was going through that led him to taking his own life in 2018.

The Best American Travel Writing – 2008 | Amazon

I was certainly a fan of Kitchen Confidential, the book that pulled Bourdain out of the hot kitchens of New York and onto the world stage as a writer and, in time, traveler and tv personality.  However, I was never all that enamored with the celebrity chef culture that was taking hold at that time and that Bourdain seemed to be an unlikely underworld hero and commentator of.

I was only tangentially excited by the angle of viewing world travel through food – the actual food itself.

What I really did begin to appreciate Bourdain for as he evolved from Kitchen Confidential writer to Parts Unknown host, to No Reservations and The Layover, was Bourdain as a traveler, and travel writer.  The hold on a food theme was loose at best and was really about people.  That people need to eat was coincidental.

Bourdain also traveled the same way I travel, or my friends and I travel sometimes.  No Red Bull level extreme sports, but ripping down a beach on a rented quad (wipe out included) and crossing a border illegally for a quick meal – sure.  

Recently I stumbled upon a treasure trove of books at my local used bookstore.  Someone was clearly emptying the shelves and had dumped a half dozen years’ worth of The Best American Travel Writing anthologies which I promptly scooped up for a couple of bucks.

If you aren’t familiar with this annual release, The Best American Travel Writing brings a guest editor (this is the famous author, traveler, writer, combination of all of the above) to select a couple of dozen of the best travel articles published in that given year.  

In 2008, the guest editor was Anthony Bourdain.  Previous guest editors to that point had included Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux, Susan Orlean, Tim Cahill, and other legends of the travel writing genre.  

The authors of the articles themselves are sometimes famous writers, sometimes not, and are pulled from both major travel publications as well as travel websites and blogs.

As you can tell, The Great American Travel Writing anthology is an amazing way to get an inside look at your favorite writers.  Much like a case study or syllabus in a master’s course, any chance you have to find out what these writers like is a chance to learn more about the craft.  

In our world of almost endless content and distraction, it can be difficult to sift the really good stuff to the top.  Even a talented and diligent curator is sure to miss some things.  Plus, the best travel writing from twenty years ago?  Good luck sorting that out.

The Great American Travel Writing is an easy way to have a writer you admire deliver what they view as some of the best writing of the year right to you.  Plus, having a paperback version makes these books great for throwing in your backpack for a trip.

Anthony Bourdain Introduction

One of my favorite parts of The Best American Travel Writing books is the Introduction, a piece written by that year’s guest editor.  Again, this further glimpse into the mind of the writer, in this case, Anthony Bourdain, is like the introduction on the opening day of this travel writing course – “hello class, this is what we’re going to read over the course of our time together, and this is why”.

“When I’m away, I often yearn for home.  When I’m home, I’m listless.  I seem no longer to fit.”

How Bourdain sifts through the thousands of travel articles written in 2008 to arrive at these few that grabbed his attention as “best” speaks as much about the editor as the articles.

“…the one that spoke loudest and most powerfully to me were usually evocative, of the darker side, those moments fearful, sublime, and absurd; the small epiphanies familiar to the full-time traveler, interspersed by a sense of dislocation = and the strange, unholy need to record the experience.”

And where do you start?  How about the story that is described in the introduction as:

“…the absolutely breathtaking “The River is a Road”, we follow Bryan Mealer all the way into the proverbial heart of darkness and beyond  The story sets the bar almost impossibly high for any writers who care to mine this territory further.”

Anyone doing a google search for Bryan Mealer right now?  That’s what I’m doing.

The Best American Travel Writing isn’t a beginning-to-end type book.  Its chapters are stand-alone stories, loosely connected through the filter of how the guest editor defines “best”.  You pick and choose authors and topics from the contents page, guided by author or topic, something know or unknown – curiosity. 

You can pick them up and come back any time and you can search for the editions edited by your own favorite authors.  

The Best American Travel Writing – 2008

Here are the contents of The Best American Travel Writing of 2008. As noted previously, not only will you learn about great writers in this “travel writing course” but also some new outlets to keep track of.

The Best American Travel Writing – 2008 | Amazon

I had never heard of either or (and here it is “The Best Travel Stories on the Internet). Where have I been?

Bill Buford, Extreme Chocolate – The New Yorker

Ian Burma, Phnom Penh Now – Travel + Leisure

James Campbell, Chasing ghosts – Outside

Peter Hilson, The Border –

Simon Doonan, Brighton Beach Memoir – Travel + Leisure

L. Malcolm Garcia, African Promise – The Virginia Quarterly Review

Karl Taro Greenfeld, Hope and Squalor at Chungking Mansion –

Peter Gwin, Dark Passage – National Geographic

Peter Hessler, Wheels of Fortune – The New Yorker

Melik Kaylan, Georgia in the Time of Misha – Travel + Leisure

John Lancaster, Next Stop, Squalor – Smithsonian

Emily Maloney, Mr. Tingler – The

Bryan Mealer, The River Is a Road – Harper’s Magazine

Pankaj Mishra, The Train to Tibet – The New Yorker

Annie Nocenti, The Most Expensive Road Trip in the World – Details

Kristin Ohlson, Kabul Nights – Gourmet

David Sedaris, Journey into Night – The New Yorker

Gary Shteyngart, To Russia for Love – Travel + Leisure

Seth Stevenson, Looking for Mammon in the Muslim World –

Thomas Swick, Have Book, Will Travel – The Weekly Standard

Jeffrey Tayler, The Woman in the Kuffiaya –

Matthew Teague, While the King Sleeps – National Geographic

Paul Theroux, The Golden Man – TheNew Yorker

Calvin Trillin, Three Chopsticks – The New Yorker

Catherine Watson, Where the Roads Diverged –

Anthony Bourdain, Then

Of course, none of us knew in 2008 how Anthony Bourdain’s trajectory would play out.  At that time he was on top, living a life many travelers and writers only dream of, seeing the world and getting paid well to do it. 

Like the new documentary and posthumous book, the 2008 edition of The Best American Travel Writing is part of the collective library of work that gives a little insight into where Bourdain was at that moment in time, who he was, what he found interesting, and in this case, what travel writing he thought was truly great.

More Anthony Bourdain Books and TV

The Best American Travel Writing – 2008 | Amazon

Kitchen Confidential – 2000

Parts Unknown

Roadrunner: A film

World Travel:  An Irreverent Guide – 2021

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