Marco Polo Didn’t Go There

Travel Writing Book Review: Marco Polo Didn't Go There
15 March 2010 By: Print This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post         

Few travel writers and travel bloggers, if any, don’t know who Rolf Potts is.

When you say the words “travel writing”, many people think of a “went there, did that” guidebook-like style of writing, and in truth much of travel writing is exactly that.

What prolific writer, author, and well-known vagabond Rolf Potts produces, however, is better described as travel literature, and he sets a very high standard for the rest of us to aspire to.

His most recent book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer, is a compilation of some of his stories crafted from his experiences traveling around the world over a ten-year span.

There are few books I would read a second time, but this is definitely one of them.

His stories have been published in high-profile publications such as National Geographic Traveler, Conde Nast Traveler, Outside Magazine, the New York Times Magazine, (and many more), websites including the venerable, Slate, and WorldHum, as well as numerous literary anthologies chronicling the best examples of travel writing, such as The Best American Travel Writing 2009, among others.

Add to that already impressive resume the fact that he’s a five-time (as of this writing) winner of the prestigious Lowell Thomas Award, and you have someone well-qualified to be a role model, even if we hate him just a tiny bit for being SO good that he makes the rest of us suffer by comparison.

What’s Good:

It’s a wonderful and very entertaining read for anyone – writer or not – and it’s easy to see why Rolf has won so many awards and accolades. More importantly however, is that with this book Rolf gives a great gift to other travel writers, both experienced and aspiring, by including a “commentary track”.

At the end of each chapter are Rolf’s notes, wherein he describes how he made his decisions on what to include, what to leave out, and how he structured real characters and events into an entertaining story. This is the kind of instruction that you could otherwise only get by taking one of his multi-week travel writing workshops.

What Could Be Better:

I spent weeks trying to find something to constructively criticize, if only to present a balanced review, but the only thing I can come up with is that I wish it had more chapters. I have an extremely small amount of spare time but I happily spent it reading this book, and was genuinely sad to reach the end. There are few books I would read a second time, but this is definitely one of them.

Also, and maybe this is just me, but I found his endnotes to be as interesting as the stories they explain, and would have liked more of those as well.


It’s not a “how to”, but if you have any aspirations of becoming a travel writer, or even to improve your creative writing techniques, you should consider buying this book. You will be learning from one of the best writers of our generation.


What Travel Writing books have you read? Which do you recommend?

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17 Responses to “Marco Polo Didn’t Go There”

  1. Karol Gajda says:

    I love this book. It’s great how Rolf goes into the stories behind the writing and offers so many tips and insights. It gave me a whole new perspective on travel writing.
    .-= Karol Gajda´s last blog post: Finding Your Right People =-.

  2. JoAnna

    Wow. Clearly a must-read. Thanks for reviewing this book Trisha. It’s just moved WAY up my to-read list.
    .-= JoAnna´s last blog post: Hiking in Virgin Islands National Park | St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands =-.

    • Hey JoAnna – I really enjoyed it! It took me a long time to get through it only because I’d read a chapter, then read the endnotes, then go back and re-read the chapter with the insights I learned from Rolf’s notes. I don’t think everyone needs to be as much of a study-geek as I am though!

  3. Candice

    I actually didn’t know much about Potts until I started working with Matador, oh dear. But this sounds really interesting, I have to try and find it somewhere I do believe…
    .-= Candice´s last blog post: A Post For My American Friends: Newfoundland is a Lot Closer Than You Think =-.

  4. Europeeno says:

    I have been searching for guest travel writers to share their experiences on my humble blog – somehow I don’t think I’d get a post from Rolf.
    .-= Europeeno´s last blog post: Barcelona Festivals – Guide to the Best Fiestas in Barcelona =-.

  5. Maria Staal

    Sounds like a great book, Trisha! Thanks for bringing it to our attention. I will have to see if I can get hold of it via Amazon.
    .-= Maria Staal´s last blog post: Great Scott! I have a Saint in the Family! =-.

  6. Margo

    Trisha – your site from the posts right down to your comments is just a well-spring of great info. This book sounds great – I look forward to checking it out!

  7. Vi

    Never heard about Rolf Potts before, but will check his books.
    .-= Vi´s last blog post: Create your dream adventure =-.

  8. Dave and Deb

    When I get home, I will have to buy this book, sounds very interesting. Thanks for the review, I am always looking for a great travel book.
    .-= Dave and Deb´s last blog post: Everest Base Camp Adventure – Part 2 =-.

    • What I loved best about this book is that while the stories really stand on their own as interesting and entertaining, even if you have no interest in the end notes, it’s also a really valuable teaching tool for writers. It’s rare to find a book that is both educational in a concrete way, and just plain fun to read too. 🙂

  9. Adam

    I’m always surprised at how few travel bloggers/writers know of Rolf Potts, too. This book is awesome, as is his first.

    I love the commentary after each story.
    .-= Adam´s last blog post: Thank you for your patience =-.

  10. Nisha says:

    Clearly a must-read. Your review gives some good insights.

    Thanks for reviewing this book, I have added in my list to read.
    .-= Nisha´s last blog post: Indians – they are differently made =-.

  11. Sounds like a really interesting read from a prolific and hugely experienced travel author. thanks for the tip 🙂

    *opens up*
    .-= smart traveller´s last blog post: Travelling to Sports Events – The 2010 F1 Monaco Grand Prix =-.

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