A Book of Travellers' Tales, assembled by Eric Newby. New York: Viking. 567 pp. $20 until 12/31/86. $25 thereafter. A-roving -- for conquest, for plunder, for enlightenment, for the sheer pleasure of going to other places -- is an age-old activity. Writing about it is nearly as ancient an enterprise, as Eric Newby demonstrates in this assemblage of carefully selected excerpts from 300 odd (and sometimes oddball) travelers' tales.
The volume is a compendium of reports and reflections. It includes accounts of the expeditions of Hannibal, Marco Polo, Abel Tasman, Fridtjof Nansen, and Henry Morton Stanley, utterer of the immortal ``Dr. Livingstone, I presume?''; of Walter Mittyish escapades like those of Sir Richard Francis Burton, Gustav Flaubert, and T. E. Lawrence; and of Kerouacian rambles on the roads of all six continents.
Many of the writings themselves are familiar, including those of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell; Anthony Trollope, Mark Twain, and Henry James; Graham Greene, John Gunther, Jan Morris, V. S. Naipaul. V. S. Pritchett, John Steinbeck, and Paul Theroux.
The book is filled with humor and pathos and the excitement of discovery. (Ferdinand Magellan, James Cook, Roald Amundsen, Robert F. Scott, Richard E. Byrd, and Robert E. Peary are among the many explorers whose exploits are included.)
What is missing, by design, are Biblical accounts of wanderings and pilgrimages, and the reckonings of lonely ocean sailors and stalwart mountain climbers. Newby recognizes this. Indeed, he points out that he had no desire to exclude them from the category of travelers -- or their scripts from the repertory of tales. He simply felt they were so special they deserved to be saved for other volumes.
A longtime travel editor of the London Observer, and a distinguished writer himself, Newby's latest offering is an overflowing box of samplers of insight into how certain other authors have seen the worlds they visited and the peoples they observed. (For far fuller narratives, he provides a comprehensive bibliography. It is partitioned geographically, as is the text itself.)
In addition to being the ``entertainment'' Newby intended, the book also has an unintended aspect. It is a case study in rich, colorful, and class-bound ``Eurocentric'' writing.
While there are many exceptions, most of the selections are reminders of the sorts of ``data bases'' on which much of cultural anthropology was originally built: the notations of explorers, missionaries, tourists, and travel writers wont to see exotica in the everyday lives of ``natives'' they really didn't know or understand.