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Books We Like: ‘Grounded’ by Seth Stevenson

If you’re a fan of the Ad Report Card at the online magazine Slate, then you’re already familiar with the writing of Seth Stevenson, who has been the column’s main contributor since 2003. Today, his first book—an epic travelogue titled Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World—came out…

View from the back of a remorque moto in Angkor Wat, Cambodia
The wonderful world of surface travel: the view from the back of a remorque-moto in Angkor Wat, Cambodia

 

Why fly when you can be enveloped in fog aboard a cargo freighter? 

BOOKS If you’re a fan of the Ad Report Card at the online magazine Slate, then you’re already familiar with the writing of Seth Stevenson, who has been the column’s main contributor since 2003. (Disclosure: Seth and I have been friends since the days long ago when we both worked at Newsweek magazine in New York.) I follow Stevenson’s work and have always enjoyed his friendly, explanatory style. Today, his first book—an epic travelogue titled Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World (Riverhead Books; $15)—came out and, having received an early copy, I think it’s a great antidote to the end-of-winter blahs. It reminds you there’s a big world out there.

In the book, Stevenson writes about an around-the-world trip he concocted with help from his longtime girlfriend, Rebecca. Running with the conceit of single-voyage circumnavigation of the globe a la Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, Seth and Rebecca decide that, as a matter of principle, they would make the journey without ever entering the “chilly airlessness” of jumbo-jet travel. The chapter about their first ocean crossing, from Philadelphia to Antwerp, introduced me to the concept of “freighter tourism,” in which regular people book leisure passage on a cargo ship otherwise loaded with steel containers of goods headed for distant ports. (You can read part of this amusing chapter at Slate, which is publishing one excerpt a day from the book this week.)

Grounded probably isn’t a travel book for people who want the romantic or historically important account of destinations. The couple takes a somewhat random path from place to place, and the resulting view is correspondingly serendipitous; for example, Stevenson’s description of Moscow’s Leningrad Station focuses on the decrepit state of the public toilets and the appearance of a French kid in heelies. But, the book’s tone seems perfectly suited to the age of social networking: Why follow the itinerary from an anonymous guidebook when you can tag along with a friend instead?
 

GO: Stevenson reads at 3 pm, Apr 18. The Book Cellar, 4736-38 N. Lincoln, 773-293-2665.

WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING ABOUT GROUNDED 
  • Laura Trevelyan interviewed Stevenson for the BBC; the video interview
  • The Boston Globe’s Q&A with Stevenson, 3/7/2010.
  • The Library Journal’s capsule review (last item).
  • Listen to Seth and Rebecca talk to Tom Ashbrook, the host of WBUR’s On Point.
  • Stevenson wrote a timely op-ed in The New York Times about what the volcano-related grounding of planes in Europe can teach us, 4/19/2010.

 

Photograph: Courtesy Seth Stevenson

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