Book Review: "Off the Rails: A Train Trip Through Life"

Off the Rails ends by suggesting that it's not a travel book, but that it's a book about travels. This really captures the spirit of Beppe Severgnini’s writing. I picked it up one day in Barnes & Noble when I stumbled across it on the main display table. After all, it is about rail travel, and because I love train travel, especially in Europe, this looked like a perfect book for me. I was not disappointed.

Severgnini documents numerous train trips on four continents across multiple decades. He recounts three journeys across America. I found it fascinating to read a European's take not only on Amtrak trains themselves - which pale compared to European offerings - but American culture in general. You certainly can’t help but chuckle at some of our customs when seen through the eyes of someone from a place which I can relate to.

He writes about a trip through Italy which resonated with me since I traveled several Italian routes two years ago. I recognized some of the train stations and regions of the country. More importantly, his descriptions gave me fresh perspective from which to observe when I next travel within Italy.

He tells of trips across the 1980s Soviet Union as well as behind the Iron Curtain in the waning days of communism. These stories set in a totalitarian past was part travel story, part history of a bygone era that is hard for most of us to relate to in 2019. The occurrences he conveys is a microcosm of the dysfunctional societies that exist - and perhaps still exist to a degree - for the bulk of the 20th century.

I found only the chapter about a journey across Australia to be uninteresting since I have not been Down Under nor do I have a great desire to go there. Also, the last chapter is a somewhat bizarre discussion on creativity and writing technique that seemed largely out of place and an odd way to end the book.

I enjoyed the way Severgnini made experiences on trains the central focus rather than merely recounting what it’s like to ride the rails in various parts of the world. He aptly illustrates his thesis that trains are a rolling theater of life, a stage from which to learn about cultures and people. I do not read a lot of travel writing, but I really enjoyed this book and want to look into other titles by Beppe Severgnini