A sampler of worldwide travelers' tales

A Taste For Travel: An Anthology, by John Julius Norwich. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 435 pp. $22.95. Not all cultures enjoy travel as a pastime, but in Britain, the custom has become an avocation of record. By the late 16th century, according to John Julius Norwich, as travel became an essential part of a young English gentleman's education and an intrinsic aspect of political diplomacy, it came to be considered a pleasure in its own right. Around the same time, English travel writing was getting under way.

In the four centuries since, Britishers have undertaken a prodigious number of journeys, and they have produced a prodigious number of travel books.

Norwich, a historian and travel writer (``Sahara,'' ``A History of Venice''), has gathered several hundred travel excerpts, some brief, some several pages long, almost all by British writers. Selecting mainly on the basis of ``readability,'' he has favored more recent literature, and he has favored the better known, and unquestionably many of the best, travel writers - Patrick Leigh Fermor, Jan Morris, Wilfred Thesiger, Freya Stark. Eschewing a straightforward chronological or geographical arrangement, he has tried to shape his material by theme, tucking his selections loosely into chapters with such headings as ``Motivations,'' ``Departures,'' ``Hardships,'' ``Customs of the Country.''

Excerpts can be frustrating - most writing does not benefit from being chopped up - but Norwich has done well in finding passages that represent an author and are interesting in themselves. This is especially the case with his favorites, many of whom have several entries in the book. Through their selections, we sense the reflective intelligence of Freya Stark, for whom ``a widening of the bounds of life'' is essential; the feisty toughness of Wilfred Thesiger, for whom the difficulty of a trip is a measure of its worth; the eloquence of Jan Morris, directed here toward the lions of Venice; and the humor of Peter Fleming, whose ``Brazilian Adventure'' begins with an advertisement in The Times and leads him to jungle roads with personalities and wills of their own.

As one would expect in a genre characterized by self-deprecating heroes and comic situations, there is a good deal of hilarity in the anthology. But there are serious and poignant accounts as well, among them that of Fynes Moryson journeying in 1596 with his ill brother; and of the dashing Capt. Fred Burnaby dozing off on a sleigh in Russia and exposing his bare hands to the frost.

What is missing from this anthology is the insight into travel and travel literature promised, if only indirectly, by the book's thematic arrangement and by the presence of Norwich's commentary. Many of the chapter themes are poorly conceived - ``Towns, Islands and Other Places,'' for example, and ``Events and Entertainments'' lack focus. Others are poorly executed: ``Travelling Companions'' opens with the nice observation that ``the greatest travellers travel alone,'' but the idea is not explored in the selections. Norwich's own commentary is a disappointment: vague rather than incisive (``Americans have always been particularly good at first impressions of Europe''), his remarks add little to the selections.

The selections, however, hold up well on their own: They are entertaining, they are varied, and they offer newcomers to travel literature - who are the best audience for this book, I think - a chance to see what different authors in this field have written and decide which of them they would like to read more fully.

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