The armchair traveler knows the power of books; they see the world through their pages. Long before I set off on Route 66, I explored this tarmac belt — which stretches nearly 4,000 kilometers between Chicago and Santa Monica — while reading John Steinbeck’s masterpiece. grapes of wrathDecades later, with a dog-eared copy in hand, I embark on the pilgrimage it inspired me to make. The first reading summoned me here; the second amplified the already fully formed landscape in my mind.
Literature proved a more valuable adjunct when traveling to places where my imagination remained hazy. Stories are better than guidebooks in illuminating soul, spirit, and national identity. They expand not only our geographic horizons, but also our understanding of things we cannot taste, smell, or see. Too often, travel is an exercise in extracting the best from newly conquered territories: exotic foods, foreign eccentricities, famous landmarks. We are a blank sheet of hastily collected impressions. Literature invites us to reject this quick fix and dig deep into the foundations of everything we see on the surface.
Little did I know about Naples before I set off with Elena Ferrante my good friend Stuff it in my backpack. This book (along with three others in the series) took me from the city’s pizzeria and ice cream parlors’ crowded alleyways into the heart of Naples. This story is not an adjunct to my travels; in fact, it is my travels that enrich the book.
Literature has the ability to imbue physical travel with profound meaning. Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn were my companions on the transpolar railway from St. Petersburg to Salekhard; the rattling tracks beneath my feet were laid by Stalin’s prisoners. Two writers were also exiled there, and reading their accounts in different historical periods enhanced my comprehension and empathy far more than any tour guide’s explanation.
Writers are, of course, the most reliable interpreters of their fellow men—and people are, after all, the ancestors of culture.My first impressions of the Republic of the Congo were formed during my travels while reading the books of Alain Mabanckou shattered glass. This rambunctious, subversive novel loops to its final conclusion without a full stop.forget joseph conrad in heart of darkness, Mabanckou seems to be saying (did he find an old copy of my novella in his seat pocket?). We are self-aware, comical, multifaceted beings, not artifacts waiting to be decoded by you.
By its very nature, travel is often beauty, and the books reinforce that fact convincingly.At Cape Coast, Ghana, Yaa Gyasi’s go home Breathed life into the slaves who were once imprisoned in the castles I visited. But that’s not the end of their story; it unfolds in the diaspora epic. To be sure, literature instills humility in us: our encounters are snapshots, because the real story stretches farther than the eye would like to see.
“Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn were exiled there at different historical periods; …”.