Reading and traveling are symbiotic activities. Books inspire travel and travel encourages reading. In my world, they live in intimate association with one another and by doing both, they add up to something larger than doing either as an individual act. I’m not talking about the practicality of reading a guidebook for the purpose of figuring out what to do/eat/see on a trip– although that is valuable. I’m talking about how reading can invoke such an acute sense of place that it will inspire a trip. How a well researched book gives you the cultural history of a place. How a sympathetic character will trigger inspiration when you discover that you and the character are on a similar path. And how having traveled somewhere will give you that special insider knowledge that is later rewarded when reading about that place.
Reading Gives You a Strong Sense of a Place
A recent Book Riot piece argued against reading fiction in advance of visiting a new locale. Rather, it advised you to visit with an open mind and form your own impressions.
I get the point, but respectfully disagree. Great fiction can be a form of research prior to visiting a new place. It can give you sense of the geography, culture and history which will inform your own visit. My advance reading for Lisbon included The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon. As I walked Lisbon’s narrow, medieval streets, I couldn’t help but think about the novel’s story regarding the disastrous effect of King Manuel’s forced conversion of Jews in the early 1500’s.
After reading The Gods of Tango, I had an appreciation for the hard-working Italian immigrants of Buenos Aires’ slums and learned a great deal about their involvement in the evolution of the Tango. Had I not read those books in advance of my travels, my experience would have been the poorer for it.
Books Can Inspire You to Travel to a New Place
Another symbiotic action occurs when a book creates such a clear sense of place, that it gives you an urgency to visit. One example of this is Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. I was sorta interested in Argentina prior to reading the book. But Chatwin’s quixotic wanderings in search of Butch Cassidy and the gruff cast of characters that he encounters made me want to go there immediately. And so, Argentina shot up to the top of my bucket list and culminated with a visit last fall.
Finding Yourself in the Shoes of a Character
In 2014, I set out to walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain. As a primer for the walk, I read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Poor Harold. His unexpressed grief sent him on an unlikely 600 mile quest to visit an old flame. The motivations driving my pilgrimage were different than Harold’s, but like him, I stuck to my commitment for the long walk and didn’t let distractions or discomforts derail me from my goal. If you are interested in the Camino, check out this list of 31 great reads.
Affirming Your Love for a Place Already Visited
Sometimes a book can bring a wistful remembrance by calling to mind a place that you have already visited and loved. I found myself smiling while reading Mark Twain’s Roughing It. I identified with his misadventures on the shores of Lake Tahoe. His half-hearted, careless attempt to stake out a timber claim resulted in setting a patch of the El Dorado forest on fire, dashing his dreams of timber riches. My own inattention to fire ashes nearly caused me to set the same forest on fire. Fortunately the hot ashes didn’t catch and my patch of forest is still intact. But my kinship to Twain grew when I realized that we were both, at times, distracted dunces.
Reading that great book will motivate you to go, inform your visit, inspire you to soldier on or recall fond memories. It will add value to your travels in a way that Rick Steves and Fodors cannot. So pick a place and pick up a book. Or pick up a book, then pick a place. Either way, get going and have a great a trip.
- Spark your wanderlust with this list of 51 travel books and discover touching moments of kindness, travel mishaps and wacky adventures.
- Books that have inspired publishers and booksellers to travel.
- See a huge round-up by Nomatic Notes on his 200 favorite travel books.
- Get the best of both worlds by taking a literary trip to Dublin, Salt Lake City, San Francisco or Los Angeles.
- Read about how I perform literary misdemeanors every time I visit a bookstore or library.
- Read more books with these reading lists for Sri Lanka, Scotland, Ireland and Cuba and Iceland.
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