"The Travels of Marco Polo"
(Edited by Morris Rossabi, Sterling Signature, $40)
If the New York Times best-seller list had been around in 1298, "The Travels of Marco Polo" would have been No. 1. Why? It's ripping good.
Back in the day, it also was astonishing, telling medieval Europeans of the strange customs of Kublai Khan's empire -- paper money, passports, using black rocks (coal) for heat, and transporting messages via fast horses. The book spurred explorers to imagine exotic worlds. Even Christopher Columbus carried a copy aboard his ship.
Now, a new illustrated edition reminds us how a travel book can change the world.
Polo's adventure began in 1271, when the 17-year-old from Venice, Italy, journeyed with his father and uncle to what are now parts of Israel, Iran and China, and then the Mongol Empire. Twenty-four years later, he returned home to a war and was imprisoned. Luckily, his cellmate, Rusticello da Pisa, was an accomplished writer who asked him to narrate his experiences.
This new version is illustrated with 200 images and contains insights by historian Rossabi. My favorite part is Polo's description of the Chinese cities of Suzhou (Suju) and Hangzhou (Kinsay), which I have visited. He describes the graceful bridges, the paved roads and the custom of writing names of the inhabitants over each front door.
Some skeptics have wondered if the book is even true. Rossabi argues that Polo clearly visited most -- but not all -- of the locations himself.
For me, Polo's vivid account resonates with evidence of true curiosity and a genuinely open mind and heart -- qualities that all very fine travelers share.
-- Ellen Creager, Detroit Free Press