We all know that books are vessels, transporting us to other worlds. Less celebrated is how travel, our real-life discovery of the world, leads us to books.
I’m not talking about airport novels. I am always struck not just by the large number of passengers who don’t read—all those people staring not even into space (which would be understandable, given the circumstances) but into the seat backs in front of them—but by travelers who read books that have no connection to where they’re going.
As soon as I dream up a trip, I plan my reading accordingly. In fact, when I have no trips upcoming, I have a hard time deciding what to read. The world and my apartment are so full of books that it’s extremely difficult to settle on a few. This is one of the reasons why travel is so important. Of its many gifts—the expanding of one’s experience, the broadening of one’s mind—the helpful narrowing of one’s reading list gets overlooked.
For, without any borders, where do you begin? People who were good students in college often stop reading after graduation, not because they simply don’t enjoy it or because they don’t have time, but because they no longer have a syllabus. They stand paralyzed before the ever-growing abundance of books. They need to get out. Travel gives you a syllabus. There is not a country in the world that doesn’t have a good book written about it, and if there is, you probably don’t want to go there.
Because I travel for a living, most of my reading is tied to my trips. This seemingly limiting approach actually gives me great scope, not only in terms of geography but also of genre. I want to learn as much as possible about the places I visit, so I read as many books as I can: travel narratives, of course (which I also write), but relevant biographies, memoirs, poetry, and novels as well. Because my literary tastes lean toward nonfiction, there is now a growing group of novelists whose works would have remained unread by me if not for my frequent-flyer status.
The latest is Giuseppe di Lampedusa. I was going to Sicily for the first time, so I visited my local library before the trip and took out The Leopard. My response to the novel was probably different from that of most readers: I was less interested in the romance of Tancredi and Angelica than I was in the descriptions of Palermo. I picked up my pen and copied into my notebook passages like: “It was the religious houses that gave the city its grimness and its character, its sedateness and also its sense of death which not even the vibrant Sicilian light could ever manage to disperse.” The travel writing of a (gifted) resident.
I hope that, in my pursuit of local color and indigenous insight, the universal greatness of such works has seeped into me. I’ve definitely given it a chance to occur. If asked to play a word association game with countries I’ve visited, I would, for many, utter the names of writers (not always native) who seem synonymous with each place: Egypt-Mahfouz, Turkey-Pamuk, Colombia-Marquez, Uruguay-Galeano, Trinidad-Naipaul, St. Lucia-Walcott, Malaysia-Burgess, Croatia-West, Portugal-Pessoa, Canada-Munro. They are literary consuls; their works sublime, essential field guides.
There are countries which, visited for the first time, allow for hours of enjoyable rereading. During one well-traveled period in the ’90s, it seemed that every place I went—Mexico, Haiti, Vietnam—had served as the setting for a Graham Greene novel. Like many Americans, I have dreamt of someday driving cross-country, and the pleasure will be twofold as I’ll return gratefully to the pages of Lolita. There are also places that inspire me, e-ticket in hand, to finally tackle classics I’ve long avoided. I read Crime and Punishment a number of years ago only because of an upcoming trip to St. Petersburg. (I had been put off Dostoyevsky by Lolita’s creator, a fellow Petersburger who found him melodramatic.) Before a trip to Greece, I not only read The Iliad, I audited a course on it at a local university. (A move I highly recommend, because when I read The Odyssey on my own, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much—and it’s a travel book!)
And there are places that introduce me to books I never would have read because I never would have heard of them. A few summers ago, I ploughed through Shimazaki Toson’s 750-page novel Before the Dawn because it is set in a town—Magome, Japan—that I was going to hike to that fall. The book was not a stylistic delight, but it was informative about the mountainous region—the food, the customs, the old Kiso Road—and the period of Japan’s opening up to the West.
When, in November, I arrived in Magome after 10 days walking the Kiso Road, it had the feel of a pilgrimage site. The town, including the author’s childhood home, had been destroyed by a fire and then rebuilt, but it still possessed the solemn air of a place that had been captured and validated by words. Though only, of course, to those who’d read them.
This is the other beauty, apart from edification, of reading about the places you visit: They take on added meaning. You can drive to Archer City, Texas—even with Larry McMurtry’s bookstore as your lodestar—but unless you’ve read The Last Picture Show you won’t get the proper emotional jolt. Palermo, Sicily, when I arrived there, was not just Palermo, but a city haunted by princes and lackeys.
Reading can also help the traveler connect with people, especially abroad, where writers often enjoy a greater status than they do in America. A few years ago, in Turin, I mentioned to a woman that I’d been reading Primo Levi. She replied that a picture of her as a young girl appears in Ian Thomson’s biography of him. (Her father, a journalist, had been good friends with the writer, and they occasionally went on family outings together.) When I meet a Dutchman, I inevitably bring up the name Cees Nooteboom (literature as a lingua franca!), and I can’t find myself in the company of a Swiss without asking about Nicolas Bouvier.
Bouvier’s The Japanese Chronicles was my reward for finishing Before the Dawn. I tend to save travel books for last, not just because I often find them more enjoyable than novels—business before even-more-pleasurable business—but because of their inherent complementary nature. The findings of an outsider, no matter how artful, are gravy on the meat of a native’s masterworks. But what rich gravy! Eating freshly cut seaweed, Bouvier tastes “salt, iodine, hints of a school of anchovies or the oily wake of a cargo ship.” Of the Japanese character he writes: “Here, anyone who doesn’t serve an apprenticeship to frugality is definitely wasting his time.” This line ran through my head night after night on the Kiso Road, as I slept on cold floors in unheated inns. And, in a way, it made the experience more tolerable, for it elevated my modest suffering to a cultural act.
Before leaving for Sicily, and after finishing The Leopard, I ordered The Honoured Society: The Sicilian Mafia Observed by Norman Lewis, another great travel writer hard to find at chain bookstores. The book arrived in a white envelope and had a design identical to that of The Japanese Chronicles: a black-and-white photograph taking up most of the cover and the name of the publisher (Eland) running vertically at the top. Opening it up, I saw that it was dedicated to S. J. Perelman. Books, like journeys, are full of surprises.
Thomas Swick is the author, most recently, of A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler.