Armchair Traveling

I read as if I’m starving. I don’t nibble; I don’t pick up a book and read a chapter or two and then maybe another chapter or two a day later. I consume voraciously, flipping madly from page to page, often completing an entire book in one setting. When I open a book, I’m transported to a new world that I’m reluctant to leave until I’ve read the last word on the last page. Stopping to go about my life in my world spoils the magic, at least a bit. If I’m busy, I usually end up neglecting books all together and turning to magazines and newspapers for a while. I can’t stand to put a book aside unfinished.

To me, reading is a way to experience a different life, to learn about another culture, to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Sometimes I have a moment’s glimpse into another country, sometimes a look at another time. Sometimes the places I travel to do not exist except for on the page and in the reader’s imagination. Regardless, I learn something new, something that affects the way I interact in the world and with other people.

Often when we prepare for trips, the kind that require luggage and plane tickets and hotel reservations, we spend a lot of time reading guidebooks. We learn opening and closing times, admission fees, bus schedules, and maybe a brief history of the place we are going. That’s well and good, and really quite helpful. But it doesn’t give us a true feeling for life in that country. That’s why I like to read books about the places I’m visiting. Sometimes I read nonfiction books, histories of people and events. But more often, I read novels and short stories. Though I won’t get a plethora of facts from these works of fictions, I’ll get a taste of what people believe, feel, care about. I’ll acquire tidbits of history and notes about problems.

As we prepare for this trip, I’ve set myself a goal of reading a book related to each of the countries we plan to visit. The book can either be about that country or written by someone from that country. Some countries aren’t difficult. India is currently very popular in the American market. Chile has turned out a wealth of excellent writers. Other countries I’m having a harder time finding books for. Here’s a look at a few books that I’ve already read, and a couple of books I hope to read.

A Sample of Books I’ve Read that Relate to Places We’ll Visit
1. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
2. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (India)
3. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder (Peru) [It’s been a long time since I read this, however.]
4. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (Vietnam)
5. Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire (Rwanda)

Too bad we’re not going to Afghanistan (The Kite Runner & A Thousand Splendid Suns), Pakistan (Three Cups of Tea), Congo (The Poisonwood Bible), Columbia (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Nigeria (Things Fall Apart), or Japan (Memoirs of a Geisha), since I’ve been introduced to all of them through rather excellent literature.

A Sample of Books I’d Life to Read Before We Go
1. The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin (Galapagos) [Before we rafted the Grand Canyon, we read John Wesley Powell’s account of his discovery trip through the Canyon, and we found it interesting to see places he noted in his journal.]
2. The House of the Spirits or My Invented Country by Isabel Allende (Chile)
3. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (South Africa)

National Geographic Traveler’s Website offers an Ultimate Travel Library, which I’ve been using to get some ideas. But I need more suggestions. So tell me, what book have you read that you think I just must get my hands on before we leave? Leave your suggestions in the comments. (If you’re not sure where we’re going, feel free to suggest a book about any foreign land.)