“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
Journeys through books are eye-openers. The best books give you the sense of a place and the culture of its people.
Donna Leon, through her many Commissario Guido Brunetti Mysteries (like Acqua Alta and Death at La Fenice) does this for Venice, Italy and Lawrence Durrell does it for many places including Cyprus (Bitter Lemons of Cyprus) and a certain era in Alexandria, Egypt in the quartet of Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea.
In A Year in Provence and subsequent books in the series, Peter Mayle conveys the southern French slower pace and joie de vivre. He conveys how projects progress slowly but the light and the food are amazing.
And then there is Hemingway; A Movable Feast remains one of my favorite books because it depicts the storied Paris of artists and writers.
With Paul Theroux’s travel stories I’ve been a vicarious rail traveler from England to Asia (The Great Railway Bazaar) and around the coastal towns of the British Isles (The Kingdom by the Sea). What I like most is that he doesn’t just observe places from his moving perch, he gets off the train, mingles with the locals and experiences the ethos of each place he visits. Traveling by rail is not my personal preference but his adventure from Boston to Patagonia (The Old Patagonian Express) was once an inspiration for making a road trip from Boston to Mexico City and on to Baja California. Theroux also gave me an informative and detailed tour around the Mediterranean coast starting from Gibraltar, east along the southern European side, south to Albania, Greece and Turkey and west along the northern African side ending in Tangier, Morocco (The Pillars of Hercules). It was an inspiration for getting off the beaten path, noticing details, being flexible, making plans on the fly and for boarding the car ferry to experience Morocco in person.
Book journeys sometimes teach you how not to act. I learned early on that I didn’t want to travel with the kind of American brashness that Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens) portrayed in Innocents Abroad. To quote him regarding the French, “We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”
Sometimes writers describe places in a way that makes you want to avoid them. I have no desire to walk the Pennsylvania section of the Appalachian Trail after reading A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.“ He warns of random murders and says, “Lots of people leave Pennsylvania limping and bruised. The state also has what are reputed to be the meanest rattlesnakes anywhere along the trail, and the most unreliable water sources, particularly in high summer.”
A book like Wild by Cheryl Strayed reinforced for me how a journey can be harrowing when tackled unprepared. Her hike of the Pacific Crest Trail was kick-started by grief and impulse. I give her credit for persevering but she was the type of hiker who often needs to be rescued at great cost to the Forest Service.
Some books describe journeys of daunting excitement. Kevin Fedarko takes the reader on an ill-advised raft trip down the Colorado River at its highest flood stage (The Emerald Mile). It’s too crazy to want to duplicate but you have to admire the gutsiness and skill of the adventurer.
In A Single Pebble, John Hersey has you experience the difficulties of sailing upstream through the gorges of the Yangtzee River in China before the dams were built. Each time toiling laborers pull the boat with ropes as they walk the steep cliffs, you worry that someone will die. In the end, he predicts how the building of dams will be a double-edged sword. They will eliminate some dangers but will have a negative affect on the way of life of the river inhabitants.
Gavin Young took me on an assortment of ships from Piraeus in Greece, through the Middle East and all the way to Canton in Slow Boats to China and Chris Cleave took me on an escape route from the Nigerian conflict to England and back in Little Bee. In Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, I walked out of Paris trying to escape the Nazis and in The Blue Bicycle by Regine Deforges I rode with Lea Delmas through the war-torn French countryside delivering messages for the Resistance.
My own journeys are less dramatic and usually require little courage, but for good adventures, I often turn to books for advice.