'I don’t just read all the new travel books I can get hold of, I collect whole library editions as well. Aside from their texts, they summon up a once devoted and attentive readership: Those lovely cloth-and-gilt-titled Everyman hardbacks are scented with craftsmanship and muscular Christian decency. The bashed-up magenta paperbacks produced by Penguin just before the war were part of a mission that made democratic socialism possible, while I imagine the blue-cloth hardbacks of Jonathan Cape’s traveller’s library, being read by the more thoughtful members of a colonial clubhouse in the 20s. From my own youth the massed volumes of the rival Picador, Penguin Travel Library and Century lists sit prolific on my shelves.
I acquire them to aid my work (which is to dig out lost classics of travel literature and add them to the Eland list) but there is also something more obsessive going on. The libraries allow me to watch how the ‘immortality’ of authorship ebbs away, how tastes evolve and how that which was so ‘needed and now’ to one generation, becomes so much recyclable garbage to the next. But like inspiring pin-pricks in the night sky, there are still travel books that keep shining, and have kept generation after generation of readers enthralled . . .