Literature as Travel Preparation

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Reading more than guidebooks

You may read guidebooks, tourism sites or travel blogs to prepare for travel. But do you read the literature of a place before visiting?

A country’s literature, be it fiction or memoir, provides insight into its culture and the nature of the people. Guidebooks often provide include recommended reading lists. An instructor in a travel writing class suggested reading a country’s detective fiction as a way to get a feel for the country. I have a fondness for Scandinavian and British mysteries. The setting and the ways of the people are certainly inherent in the fabric of the stories.

I usually intend to read several books from and about the area before I visit a place, but admit I frequently don’t get through as many as planned. Time is short and I have other commitments. Sometimes the books I want aren’t readily available at my local library or book store. But any reading I have done has enhanced my experience.

Before visiting Cuba in 2004, I read Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havanna by Isadora Tattlin. Although the book described a period in the 1990s and a setting quite different from the beach-side, all-inclusive resort where I’d spend my days, I gained a glimpse into life outside the tourist walls.

In 2012, before my husband and I visited the Caribbean island of Nevis, a place we had not been in 25 years, I read Rivers of Time: Why is everyone talking to Philippa? by June Goodfield. The book describes June’s quest to trace the identify of a woman whose name appeared on an old gravestone, and a fictionalized account of the woman’s life based on the information she learned. The account of Philippa’s life provided historical background of the island. And June Goodfields’s own experience with Nevis was one I could connect with. She first visited Nevis in the early 1980s, close to the time of my first visit. Her description of the changes in subsequent visits helped prepare me for the changes I, too, would see.

If you don’t get a chance to read the literature before your trip, you may want to consider reading it when you return home. You may view your travel with a changed perspective. And you may appreciate the story more fully, recognizing parts of the setting or actions of the people. I’ve read some of José Latour’s Cuban crime novels since my visit to Cuba. I am currently reading the stories in Phoenix Noir. The stories feature a darker side of the greater Phoenix area than I saw during my winter there, but I still feel a sense of recognition.

And sometimes books you read for recreation may pique your interest to visit an area. J.A. Jance’s Joanna Brady series made me curious about the Bisbee, Arizona area before I learned of its quirky tourist appeal.

I now prepare for a visit to Barcelona, Spain. I’ve read Robert Hughes’s Barcelona,  Colm Toibin’s Homage to Barcelona, and portions of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Barcelona’s long and rich history is more than I can fully absorb in a few hours of recreational reading, but I feel I have a better background now to improve the lens through which I see the city.

What literature has enriched your travels?

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