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.)

12 Replies to “Armchair Traveling”

  1. Books…my favorite topic. I guess somewhat surprisingly I have read three of the books mentioned. Those being “The Things They Carried”, “Shake Hands with the Devil”, and “Things Fall Apart”. I know I am going to be in the minority here (and quite honestly what do I really know about books) but I hated “The Things They Carried”. Maybe it was the fact that I read it for Ms. Burke’s English class and I didn’t like her interpretation of the book (and in high school thats the only interpretation that counts). I very much enjoyed “Shake Hands with the Devil” despite it taking me an entire summer of commutes to and from D.C. to complete it. And I think I enjoyed the story of “Things Fall Apart” but even better since it was for Dr. Watson’s English class it was a quick and easy read, therefore making the book notes assignment very doable. When Spring Break rolls around I’ll have to post about the books I’ve read so far this semester.

  2. As a teacher, I’ve made a firm decision that the knowledge base of readers and the ability to apply this knowledge base is quite larger than non-readers. I’m not sure where Greg fits into this equation(he is, after all, both a trained and a “popular” reader). All I do know is that it is next to impossible to teach a non-reader much of anything.

    Indian literature is some of the best literature being written near and in the 21st century, so I would recommend The Death of Vishnu(by Manil Suri) as well as The God of Small Things(by Arundhati Roy).

    Not all his work is set in Brazil, but Brazilian author Paulo Coelho comes recommended by me and even more strongly recommended by Amanda.

    As for dead-white-dude literature, I would recommend Orwell(“Shooting an Elephant” and Burmese Days), Hemingway’s stuff from Africa(a great read for the actual trip), and Heart of Darkness.

  3. Oh…Heart of Darkness. Are you fucking kidding me? Shoot me in the face. A long, difficult, and not enjoyable read if I’ve ever attempted one. And I’m not exactly sure where I fit into your equation either. I’m more of a news/current events/happenings and non-fiction type of reader. I like reads that are magazine feature length or shorter. I’ll never waste my time with fiction either. Whatever I am thinking in my mind is always a lot more interesting than anything somebody else could make up and I read.

  4. If you like Chatwin (“In Patagonia”), and you plan to visit Australia, then add “The Songlines” to your reading list. It’s another Chatwin classic. There is also a nice collection of stories, “What Am I Doing Here,” published post-humously.

    Three more of my favorites are Theroux’s railway adventures: “The Old Patagonian Express,” “Riding the Iron Rooster,” (and the best IMHO) “The Great Railway Bazaar.”

    Earlier this year I read and enjoyed Colin Thurbon’s new book: “In the Shadow of the Silk Road”.

    If its fiction you like, and Africa is on the itinerary, try Saul Bellow’s “Henderson the Rain King”

    Lastly, all these books are very serious. For Australia, Bill Bryson’s “In a Sunburned Country” is both funny and insightful.

    BTW, thanks for pointing us to the Ultimate Travel Library – that’s a great find!

  5. I also read “The Inheritance of Loss” and didn’t really like it that much. The writing was good, but I got to the end and felt cheated, like “what was the point of that?” If you’re interested in reading more from India I would HIGHLY recommend “Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri. It’s a collection of short stories and I just loved it. She also wrote “The Namesake” which I haven’t read yet, but am really looking forward to.

  6. I must admit that I didn’t really like the “Inheritance of Loss” either. I read it right after I read “The Namesake,” which I loved. I’ll have to check out Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection.

  7. Heart of Darkness is a wonderful story, turned painful read because Conrad’s first language was something other than English.

    “In a Sunburned Country” did very little for me. Bryson is hit or miss in my book and this work was quite the miss.

  8. Many of the books you listed are among my all-time favorites. Some others I like:

    Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller [Rhodesia (Zimbabwe/Zambia)]

    Around the Bloc by Stephanie Griest [Russia/China/Cuba]

    We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch [non-fiction account of Rwanda genocide]

    Travels by Michael Chrichton [surprisingly good short stories about everywhere]

    Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert [Italy/India/Bali]

    The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain [classic about Europe/Middle East]

    Out of Africa by Isek Dineson/Karen Blixson [Kenya]

    Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer [Tibet, obviously, but lots of interesting info about Buddhist religion/culture]

    Holy Cow by Sarah Macdonald [kind of silly but fun quick read about India]

    Anything by Salmon Rushdie or Arundhati Roy [India]

    Poisonwood Bible is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s definitely worth a re-read if you’re going anywhere in Africa.

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