New books — From the January 2011 issue

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There are no trains in The Ultimate Guide—but has there ever been a hotter technology? In the short stories of Guy de Maupassant (as Henry James observed) almost no one pulls into the station with his or her virtue intact. For a generation of moviegoers, the Hays Code reinforced that erotic promise: when the night train steamed into the tunnel, America knew what it meant. REQUIEM FOR STEAM: THE RAILROAD PHOTOGRAPHS OF DAVID PLOWDEN (W. W. Norton, $65) may not be steamy in this sense, but it is aflame with the romance of rail travel. Plowden, who began taking pictures of trains as a child, in 1943, tends to shoot his locomotives from below, in three-quarter profile. As portraits, they are unabashedly heroic.

Those titans are long gone, but as Plowden’s photos show, the landscape of railyards and train tracks has changed remarkably little over the years. Last month I crossed the country by sleeper car. What struck me most of all was the prolonged sensation of speed. To spend day after day hurtling across prairies and over mountains, the near distance a constant blur; to lie on your back, night after night, pressed flat to keep from flying out of your bunk, is to realize how much faster travel used to feel, compared with the stillness of an airplane or even a highway. I recommend it—especially since, across vast stretches of the country, Amtrak has no WiFi and lousy cell phone reception. The diner car’s not much of a singles’ scene these days (at least not that I noticed on the California Zephyr), but that’s okay. Go back to your berth, latch the door, and you are alone with the continent. You are a traveler in the real world.

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