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Horror of Home

Travel writing in the post-World War II era gradually became the prosaic stuff of Sunday newspaper supplements, nothing more than Baedeker-type guides to fancy hotels and chic restaurants in foreign capitals. Bruce Chatwin revived the classic traveling-by-the-seat-of-your-pants school, a genre historically practiced by worldly wandering Brits as disparate as Lord Byron, Richard Burton, and Graham Greene. The idea is that a travel book cannot be interesting unless the journey's destination is remote and desolate, and the going is hard, even dangerous.

"Horreur du domicile," said Baudelaire, and Chatwin took it to heart. After a stifling period in his early 20's working as an up-and-coming "numbering porter" at Sotheby's auction house in London (where he honed his prose style writing short catalogue entries of art objects), Chatwin's doctor warned him that his job was inaugurating a nervous breakdown and deterioration of eyesight and advised him to seek out "far horizons."

We have the dusty-booted, mud-caked details thanks to Nicholas Shakespeare's Bruce Chatwin: A Biography. At 618 pages, this well-written book is the probable last word on a writer who—despite authoring only a half-dozen books and dying of AIDS at 48—continues to cast a long shadow over all serious travel scribes. Today, glossy magazines such as Outside and Sports...

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