Essays and Media Criticism
All essays are listed in chronological order below, from newest to oldest. For a collection of Rolf's best travel essays from his first decade as a writer, check out his newest book, Marco Polo Didn't Go There.
The Misadventures of Wenamun
Graphic narrative: 3000 years ago an Egyptian priest named Wenamun departed for Lebanon, a journey which produced one of the most peculiar (and shamefully overlooked) chapters in the history of travel writing. Here, we revisit Wenamun's ancient misadventure in comic book form.
[Appeared in The Common on December 30, 2013]
Burying the Present
Personal essay: Thirty years ago, Rolf and a friend from elementary school created a vision of the future—a space opera put to tape—and buried it in a time capsule. Listening again today reveals how we remember the present as it never quite was.
[Appeared in The Morning News on December 17, 2013]
Treme's Authenticity Problem
TV criticism: HBO's series about post-Katrina Louisiana obsessively works to prove it's not a tourist in New Orleans. It ends up losing the city—and the viewers—in the process.
[Appeared in The Atlantic on November 27, 2013]
Cannibal Habits of the Common Tourist
Cultural criticism: Dennis O'Rourke's 1988 documentary "Cannibal Tours", which probed the absurdities of global tourism, was as brilliant and cringe-inducing as any episode of "The Office" or "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Twenty-five years after its initial debut, the rise of social media self-documentation has made the film feel more relevant than ever.
[Appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books on November 15, 2013]
Selfies and the Touristification of Everyday Experience
Cultural criticism: When, two generations ago, Susan Sontag wrote how "needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted," she very well could have been making a prophetic observation about "selfies."
[Appeared in Medium on November 10, 2013]
Commentary: A Chinese teenager defaced the Luxor Temple. That’s bad, but scribbling on Egyptian antiquity is as old as tourism itself.
[Appeared in Slate on May 31, 2013]
Murder of football player in Kansas shakes town, raises questions
Long-form reportage: In September of 2012 a Kansas small-college football player was beaten to death outside a late-night house party, allegedly at the hands of players from a rival school. Rolf takes an investigative look at the 125 years that led up to the murder, and how small prairie-town colleges stay alive through sports, often importing inner-city kids to fill out rosters.
[Appeared in Sports Illustrated on December 4, 2012]
The Upside to All the Online Chatter About 'Girls'
Media criticism: Compared to the "Generation X" media frenzy of the early 1990s, the online chatter surrounding HBO's Girls is a refreshingly diverse inquiry into what it means to be young in recession-era America.
[Appeared in The Atlantic on June 13, 2012]
The Joy of Reading Graham Greene
Interview: Rolf talks with travel writer Pico Iyer about his book "The Man Within My Head," and how art can help us identify parts of ourselves we never otherwise could have articulated.
[Appeared in The Atlantic on January 9, 2012]
What's in a Name?
Commentary: The same travelers who insist on dropping the "s" from Laos in the interest of linguistic accuracy would never call Egypt "Misr" or Finland "Suomi." What factors influence the names we give to the places we visit?
[Appeared in AOL's Gadling.com on September 7, 2011]
Paul Theroux on Blogging, Travel Writing, and 'Three Cups of Tea'
Interview: Rolf talks with the legendary travel author about technology, traveling light, reportorial accuracy, notions of home, and the "Tao of Travel."
[Appeared in The Atlantic on May 17, 2011]
Essay/Reportage: When allegations surfaced that parts of Greg Mortenson's memoir "Three Cups of Tea" had been fabricated, reports noted that the book is "required reading" for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Various other branches of the military promote titles like "Freakonomics" and "Starship Troopers." Why is this the case, and what do these non-military books offer to combat-bound soldiers?
[Appeared in the May 2, 2011 issue of The New Yorker]
Around the World in 80 Hours (of Travel TV)
Media criticism: Where does the Travel Channel take us? To find out, Rolf locks himself into a Vegas hotel room and embarks on a one-week experiment in gonzo-criticism.
[Appeared in AOL's Gadling.com, February 21-25, 2011]
Sons of "The Beach"
Literary Criticism: Between 1996 and 2002, a spate of British-authored pulp fiction portrayed self-absorbed 20-somethings trying (and failing) to use travel in Asia as an escape from the superficial, directionless, consumerist lives they lead back home. What did these novels predict about the way travel was changing?
[Appeared in World Hum on 11/11/10]
The Difference: Living Well vs. Doing Well
Advice: There is an overwhelming social compulsion – an insanity of consensus, if you will – to get rich from life rather than live richly, to "do well" in the world instead of living well. This excerpt from Vagabonding explores the notion of simplicity.
[Appeared on Tim Ferriss's Lifestyle Design blog on 05/12/10]
5 Travel Lessons You Can Use at Home
Advice: Travel has a way of slowing you down, of waking you up, of pulling you up out of your daily routines and seeing life in a new way. This new way of looking at the world need not end when you resume your life at home.
[Appeared on Tim Ferriss's Lifestyle Design blog on 02/25/10]
Che: The Ronald McDonald of Revolution
Commentary: "In Cuba, Guevara's ubiquitous image appears to fill the role of both Jesus Christ and Ronald McDonald a sainted martyr of unwavering purity who also happens to promote a standardized (if not particularly nutritious) political menu." An analysis of Che's legacy in light of Steven Soderbergh's 2009 movie biopic.
[Appeared in World Hum on 01/27/09]
The Henry Ford of Literature
Media history: How one nearly forgotten 1920s Kansas publisher's "Little Blue Books" created an inexpensive mail-order information superhighway that paved the way for the sexual revolution, influenced the feminist and civil rights movements, and foreshadowed the Age of Information.
[Appeared in the September 2008 issue of The Believer]
Focus Films' "City Confidential"
Film commentary: To mark the DVD release of In Bruges, Focus Films asked Rolf and a panel of select travel writers (including Pico Iyer, Heidi Julavits, Tony Wheeler, and Ayun Halliday) to outline their favorite cinematic portrayals of cities. Films mentioned in Rolf's profile include Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, Richard Linklater's Before Sunset, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, and Alexander Payne's About Schmidt.
[Appeared in Film in Focus on 06/16/08]
Humor Doesn't Translate Internationally
Media criticism: In recent years, the most vivid legacy of B-movie gimmickry has been the emergence of "mockbusters" cheaply produced straight-to-DVD films with names like Transmorphers and Snakes on a Train. What sets mockbusters apart is that these films are deliberately released on DVD just as their blockbuster namesakes hit the big screen, thus creating a niche market based on simple consumer confusion.
[Appeared in the March/April 2008 issue of The Believer]
One Man's Odyssey into 'Eat, Pray, Love'
Book review: For men, reading Elizabeth Gilbert's book is like traveling the world with a lovely and intelligent girlfriend who can't stop talking about herself: You've come to admire this woman and you wish the best for her but you wish she'd stop yapping about emotional minutiae so you could both look out and enjoy the scenery from time to time.
[Appeared in World Hum on 02/11/08]
10 Sizzling Hot Travel Tips From Sir Francis Bacon
Satire: Rolf repackages the 17th century philosopher's 'Of Travel' essay in the manner of a 21st century magazine feature
[Appeared in World Hum on 01/22/08]
The Trouble With 'Smile When You're Lying'
Book review: Chuck Thompson's 'Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer' slams modern travel writing as mediocre, if not dishonest. But glossy magazines aren't the only venues that create a fictional matrix to lure audiences: Books like Thompson's tend to sell themselves on overstatement, as well as the exaggerated sense that the reader is getting privileged information.
[Appeared in World Hum on 01/02/08]
We Don't (Really) Know Jack
Commentary: Though innovative and inspiring, "On the Road" is a bad blueprint for life on the road. Kerouac's characters might cover a lot of miles between San Francisco and New York, but their adventures along the way are rarely more remarkable than what one might encounter in the freshman-pledge wing of a fraternity house.
[Appeared in World Hum on 09/05/07]
The Death of the Mile-High Club
Commentary: Regardless of how you try to sugarcoat the flight experience, planes have functionally become flying buses and the only people who would consider having sex on public buses are invariably on their way home from serving 18-to-24-month prison sentences for crystal-meth possession.
[Appeared in World Hum on 07/25/07]
The Last Antiwar Poem
Literary criticism: 50 years on, Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" reads like a drug-addled, homoerotic variation of "Jackass." If we aspire this year to recognize the anniversary of a Ginsberg poem that still seems relevant and challenging, we should fast-forward ten years to 1966, when the iconic Beat poet penned "Wichita Vortex Sutra."
[Appeared in The Believer, 11/08/06]
The Tourist Who Influenced the Terrorists
Literary criticism/travel anthropology: How One Egyptian's Bad Haircut from a Greeley, Colorado Barber in 1949 Provided Ideological Fuel for 9/11.
[Appeared in The Believer, October 2006]
The Worst Tourists in the World
Travel-culture essay: Disparaging one's fellow travelers by national stereotype is a time-honored parlor game. Does it serve any purpose?
[Appeared in Yahoo! News on 10/09/06]
Slumming the Golden Arches
Travel-culture essay: Within certain hipster circles of indie travel, announcing that you patronize McDonald's is kind of like confessing that you eat your boogers. But the contempt sophisticated travelers hold for McDonald's has less to do with ethical principle than the fact that fast-food franchises ruin the fantasies of otherness that are an inherent part of travel.
[Appeared in Yahoo! News on 06/05/06]
World Hum's Top 30 Travel Books"
Book reviews: In a round-up of top travel books for the Travel Channel's World Hum, Rolf sings the praises of Pico Iyer's Video Night in Kathmandu (#8), Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard (#11), Tim Cahill's Road Fever (#21), Tony Horwitz's Baghdad Without a Map (#26), and Jeffrey Tayler's Facing the Congo (#28).
[Appeared in World Hum in May of 2006]
Why We Buy Dumb Souvenirs
Travel-culture essay: Souvenir hunting is not a meaningful examination of place so much as it is a litmus test of our own whims and preconceptions as travelers. At a certain level, buying an electric blender is more representative of day-to-day Indian life than buying Kashmiri silk (though, admittedly, a blender would not look as good in your living room).
[Appeared in Yahoo! News on 05/09/06]
An Open Letter to Lewis Lapham
Commentary: Though the outgoing Harper's editor's opinions invariably carry a left-wing slant, Lapham would seem to be a profoundly conservative thinker -- someone who has never questioned the insipidity of his elite, east-coast patrician-intellectual assumptions.
[Appeared on Vagablogging.net on 12/13/05]
The Tourist is Always the Other Guy
Travel-culture essay: The rhetoric of tourists and travelers is not just trapped in the rituals of human vanity: it has become hopelessly mixed up in the postmodern wash.
[Appeared on Vagablogging.net on 10/20/05]
Signs of Confusion
Travel-culture essay: As alarming as it can be to find "Fried Rice With Crap" on a menu in Asia, bad translations can go both ways. Indeed, it's only a matter of time before someone travels to China and discovers that the "Crouching Tiger" Chinese ideogram on his butt cheek (purchased in good faith in Seattle) is provincial slang for "Adult Diapers."
[Appeared in World Hum on 12/03/04]
Lost in Translation
Commentary: Just as a conversation with a stranger at a nightclub carries a host of interpretations in your own hometown, a phrasebook-aided (or pantomime-aided) cross-cultural conversation can be filled with untold possibilities that arise only when you're unable to say exactly what's on your mind.
[Appeared in World Hum on 01/09/04]
Remembering the Hippie Trail
Book Review: As David Tomory's A Season in Heaven reveals, the wanderers of the 1960s and 1970s were creative and intrepid -- but they also tended to be petty, competitive, self-ghettoizing, and self-deluding. In short, they had the same charms and weaknesses as any self-conscious, authenticity-seeking counterculture movement of the last half-century.
[Appeared in World Hum on 07/02/03]
The Ironic Rise of Asia's Abe Lincoln
Political commentary: Dissident politician Kim Dae-jung was not (as Time declared upon his inauguration) "Destiny's Choice" to lead Korea into the new millennium, but the beneficiary of mudslinging, opportunism and circumstantial luck amid a wacky 1997 election season.
[Appeared in the Wichita Eagle on 06/24/98]
In Korea: 'Ich Bin Ein Sidewalker'
Commentary: Simon Peter once found that a relatively small amount of faith allows a man to walk on water, but he was never faced with the more relevant prospect of navigating intersections in a city where 15.5-ton Hyundai buses careen four abreast down streets originally designed for oxcarts.
[Appeared in the Wichita Eagle on 09/15/97]
Apex of Mankind Always 40 Years Ago
Book Review: Robert Bly's The Sibling Society is the latest doom-oracle for those born after the advent of polyester clothing. Conveniently, society is never as good as it was during the time when a given doomsayer came of age, and everything since has been a slippery slide on the downward spiral.
[Appeared in the Wichita Eagle on 09/16/96]