Why stories should always be in your suitcase.
When readers take a trip, books are an important accessory. And I don’t mean just travel guides or phrase books. For people who enjoy reading, a novel or history set in the destination is a great way to enrich the experience.
Some neighbors of mine, for instance, are setting off this week for their first visit to Key West. By coincidence, someone had just been praising Hemingway’s Boat, Paul Hendrickson’s 2011 account of the author’s quarter-century love affair with his boat, Pilar — years spanning his stays in Florida and Cuba. Hendrickson’s wonderfully textured account is a far better way to make the Hemingway connection in Key West than is the annual look-alike contest, and my neighbors dived into it.
Of course, all those people now heading to Cuba after travel restrictions have been eased might want to read it, too. Another acquaintance who made the trek, however, found Rachel Kushner’s 2008 novel of expatriate life on the cusp of the revolution, Telex from Cuba, to be very helpful in conjuring up some of the ghostly legacies still present on the island.
Armchair travel is one of the big reasons people read books, but they can also add whole dimensions of history and culture when you actually go to new places. Some well-traveled friends — not jetsetters, just wanderers — were quite taken by Azerbaijan when they visited the central Asian country a few years ago. The romance and allure of the place comes alive in Kurban Said’s classic, Ali and Nino, a Romeo-and-Juliet tale of doomed love between a Muslim and a Christian in Baku as the onset of World War I tears apart the peaceful coexistence of these cultures. I recommended it to them as a way to recapture some of the place’s mystique.
When a couple said they were planning a trip to Malta in the fall, I could only recommend Simon Mawer’s historical novel, The Bitter Cross. It is a tale set in the 16th century with a real knight of Malta — the fighting kind — as protagonist, and Mawer brings all his dark cynicism about the ambivalence of religion to bear in a story that vividly depicts the fortress history of this tiny island in the middle of the Mediterranean.
Closer to home, a friend moving to Santa Fe latched onto Hampton Sides’ marvelous Blood and Thunder, an epic narrative of the conquest of the West centered on Kit Carson and New Mexico. It is a history almost still visible in the mountains and canyons of that state at the crossroads of three cultures — the new American culture arriving from the East meeting the ancient Pueblo cultures and long-established Hispanic settlements. How can you understand New Mexico without reading this?
You can read on the plane there, or during those idle periods of relaxation during your visit. Beforehand, to imbue yourself with the spirit of the place, or afterward to nourish the inspiration you carried home. There’s hardly a place you can go to that doesn’t have a book written about it, often a very good one. Reading it will only enhance your experience.