The adventure was often passed-off as a silly bet, and it invariably transformed into a journey of self discovery. The results were mixed. In some cases you got a genuinely engaging and often hilarious travelogue of intrigue. Mostly, though, you got the literary equivalent of JP from Fresh Meat – droning on about his gap year whilst describing everything as “literally well-random”.
Dave Gorman is the first name that comes to mind. With his Googlewhack Adventure, America Unchained and Are You Dave Gorman? books, he certainly struck upon some truly original ideas. His work is let down, though, by a tendency to take himself – and his self-imposed projects – far too seriously. Each of his books at some point spirals into a really quite terrifying meltdown. You want to reach through the page and say, “Dave, maybe you should calm down a little?”
If Dave Gorman took things too seriously, Tony Hawks had exactly the opposite problem. He travelled Round Ireland With A Fridge, played The Moldovians at Tennis and tried to have a number one single in any country, anywhere. Tony Hawks is a mild-mannered and mildly-spoken man who you might remember best as the “host” of Better Than Life on Red Dwarf, or as the uptight rapper behind The Stutter Rap. His books, though, were painfully obvious attempts to highlight just how quirky he believes himself to be. I gave up after A Piano In The Pyrenees, in which he struggled to wrest anything approaching humour from his relocation to the French mountains.
Then there's Tim Moore, who is funny. Really funny. What sets Tim Moore apart is that, like Bill Bryson (whose travel writing arguably inspired this curious sub-genre), his books are less self-consciously “wacky” projects that happen to involve a lot of travel and more straight-laced travel writing that just so happens to be utterly hilarious. Tim Moore drew comedy not from an absurd situation or idea, but from wry observations about the perfectly normal world around him. He's not a man that places himself in strange situations and begs you to laugh. He's a skilled comedian with a subtle delivery, excellent timing and an impeccable eye for detail. Moments from Frost On My Moustache, French Revolutions, Spanish Steps and Continental Drift are amongst the funniest scenes I've ever encountered in any medium.
So what would you call this sub-genre? The Humorous Travelogue? The Personal Project (With Hilarious Consequences)? The Comedic Wanderer? I don't know, but I was quite sure that the genre had exhausted its potential, and I was convinced that I'd exhausted all the enjoyment that could possibly be drawn from the writings of grown men with too much time on their hands who really should know better.
But then I read The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs.
An American journalist and editor of Esquire, A.J. Jacobs endeavoured to read the entire 2002 Encyclopaedia Britannia back-to-back. The Know-It-All is a document of his efforts, and it really is a lot funnier than a literary marathon has any right to be. More than that, it's frequently fascinating, often touching, sometimes sad and shocking and, ultimately, it could even be described as life-affirming.
In reading The Know-It-All, not only did I learn a lot of lethal facts for future deployment, I believe I also stumbled across exactly the reason why so many efforts by Dave Gorman and Tony Hawks failed in their efforts to amuse and engage. Their ideas might have been variously wacky and fascinating, but all too often they approached their projects with a sneer and a smirk. The books can therefore come across as so cynical as to be alienating. It's like they're saying “I know it's stupid, but you're the one who bought this book, aren't you? Have you any idea how rich this made me? And I got to go to China, too. Joke's on you, moron.”
Jacobs, though, seems perfectly aware of his limitations, and doesn't ever shy from sharing his shortcomings or anxieties. At no point does he present himself as the noble or begrudging hero caught up in something beyond or below him. And when his self-imposed task starts to dominate his life, you really do get a sense of how unhealthy his obsession is becoming, and how difficult he himself is becoming for all of those around him.
When Dave Gorman or Tony Hawks complain about their projects, I can't help but roll my eyes. The “problems” about which they complain are even more trivial than first world problems. Jacobs's quest, though, is framed in a narrative concerning father-son rivalry, hypochondria, new parent anxiety and a fear of death, decay and dementia. It's real, it's human and it's affecting to no end. Every time I put the book down, I found myself thinking of Jacobs – hunched over his well-thumbed EB, eyes straining in the darkness, whilst his brooding wife lay neglected, asleep and alone next door.
The sheer scope of his task and the none-more-human element raises this book so far beyond the cynical adventures of Dave Gorman and Tony Hawks that you may as well compare Anna Karenina to Twilight. If you put a thousand Hawks in a room with a thousand typewriters, you'd have to wait years before any of them cranked out anything even half as insightful and touching as this:
“I know that everything is connected like a worldwide version of the six-degrees-of-separation game. I know that history is simultaneously a bloody mess and a collection of feats so inspiring and amazing they make you proud to share the same DNA structure with the rest of humanity. I know you better focus on the good stuff or your screwed. I know that the race does not go to the swift, nor the bread to the wise, so you should soak up what enjoyment you can. I know not to take cinnamon for granted. I know that mortality lies in even the smallest decisions, like whether to pick up and throw away a napkin...I know that you should always say yes to adventures or you'll lead a very dull life. I know that knowledge or intelligence are not the same thing – but they do live in the same neighbourhood. I know once again, firsthand, the joy of learning. And I know that I've got my life back and that in just a few moments, I'm going to have a lovely dinner with my wife.”
The Know-It-All is a celebration of life, of humanity, of knowledge, or learning, of reading, of family, of friends, of food and of brilliance. But in celebrating the brilliance, it can also makes those who can only dream of such lofty heights feel proud of their life and achievements. It champions eccentricity, yes – but never for the sake of eccentricity. It made me laugh, but it also made me feel gifted – lucky to be breathing and genuinely happy to be alive.
Piano In The Pyrenees, though? That just made me want to read something – anything – else.