Reading of any type is a great way to spend part of a vacation. But when I travel or move a new place, I love grabbing travelogues, travel books, and fiction books about the specific area I’ll be exploring.
I recently moved to New York City and have been devouring books related to New York ever since—commuting on the subway certainly has given me some good dedicated reading time too! My list so far includes history books (such as Inside the Apple, From Ellis Island to JFK), fiction (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Amazing Adventures of Kavlier & Clay) and a mix of both (New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherford). All have given me greater insight to the place I am now living.
So why read when you’re traveling? Here are five reasons I think travel books and books focusing on a specific place can make your travels richer and more fun.
Books can help you envision the stories of the people in the place you’re traveling
A good book puts you in the place where the book takes place and maybe more importantly tells you the stories of the people there. Many fiction books focus on a specific setting such as New York City, the deserts of New Mexico, or the French countryside and characters living or passing through there can become your ambassadors to this new place.
Maybe you read a novel set in ancient Rome and it helps the city come alive for you. Or see how reading Sherlock Holmes during a trip to London brings new meaning to both the story and trip. Though have I have never been to Botswana, some of the novels that give me the greatest sense of place are Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, following the lives of Mma Precious Ramotswe, Mma Grace Makutsi, and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni—characters and stories that of course made me want to travel to Botswana. Thousands of other examples exist, with some of my favorites including getting to know the fictitious and historic characters in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna when I was traveling in Mexico, and the Maori family in Bulibasha when on New Zealand’s North Island. When I lived in Alaska, I got to know Alaskans through both Jack London’s stories and the non-fiction Alaska Traveler by Dana Stabenow. Some travel books blend the line between fiction and non-fiction—Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is the most famous example and a great companion to traveling in the deserts of Argentina.
Books can take you back to a place in a specific point in history
Historic travelogues bring us not only to a different place, but a different time. Great historic travelogues or historical fiction are ways to get lost in a story yet still be connected to the place you’re at.
Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (from 1956) is a perfect example of this. I may or may not ever travel through Afghanistan, but I will never be able to see Afghanistan as it was before the Soviet invasion, the Taliban, and the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban. Paul Theroux’s The Kingdom by the Sea is a portrait of Great Britain in 1982, the year of the Falklands War and when Prince William was born. We can travel to Northern Africa, the Middle East and Europe in the late 1860s through the snide writings of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, the American West in the early 1800s via the journals of Lewis and Clark, or Asia in the 1200’s through the eyes of Marco Polo.
Travel books can provide a local’s perspective
As much as I am biased and think travel writers give great perspective on a place, many of us only briefly pass through the cities or countries we are writing about. A few weeks here, a month there, a day there. But locals writing about their own communities can be great fun—and great resources—to read while traveling.
The most fun collection of this is Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself or Going into Town by Roz Chast. I’d qualify John Muir’s writings about the Sierra Nevada in this category in this as well. The naturalist knew the region intimately and even almost 150 years later, his writings help you notice a plant or bird you may not have otherwise and give you perspective on one of the world’s most scenic mountain ranges. Reading My First Summer in the Sierra during my own first summer working at Yosemite National Park was a joy.
Books can take you on journeys you may never take yourself
I personally enjoy travel memoirs or travelogues to places I have never been because they take me to places I may never get to. A good travel writer can bring me along on their journey and I can almost feel the humidity of the jungle, or dry sand blowing across my skin.
There are books that take you on trips most of us can probably never afford or have the skills to take. Any mountaineering adventure or epic of sailing around the world are great examples of this. Do I like reading them? Yes. Will I ever be able to climb Mt. Everest or sail solo around the world? Probably not.
Others have taken adventures I have no desire to do myself, such as Kira Salak’s journey through the jungles of Papua New Guinea in Four Corners or Andrew Blackwell’s visits to the world’s most polluted places in Visit Sunny Chernobyl. Interesting reads, but I hope to never be in situations like they find themselves in. Could we count The Martian in that category too, perhaps?
Books give you cultural, historical, and scientific context to better understand where you are
Travelogues, history books, science texts, and fiction books alike can help me better understand and enjoy the place where I’m at. Even most guidebooks have some sort of history and culture section—which though they are usually short, I have found can give some good insights into a new culture, landscape, and the history of a place. But beyond guidebooks, books on a region or country can give a traveler great insight into the place you are traveling. Why are icebergs different colors? (Answer: because different densities of ice filter different wavelengths of light). Why does every Italian city have a Piazza Girabaldi and Piazza Cavour? (Answer: because they were Italian revolutionaries.) Why does every Colombian city have a Plaza Bolívar? (Answer; because he was a South American revolutionary. Reading can also help you spot patterns…!)
Many of my favorite travel books are full of history and cultural insights as well the travelers’ stories. J. Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals, about the Pacific island nation of Kirabati, is a great example of this. But history texts and other books can also prove insightful. For my trip to Tanzania, for example, King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild, gave me a lot of helpful background before I moved to Tanzania for five months.
And let’s not forget a science background for where you’re traveling, whether you learn about coral reefs in Australia,or jungle ecosystems in the Amazon. For me, standouts were Craig Childs’ The Secret Knowledge of Water (for southwestern United States travels) and Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dream during a summer in Alaska. I also have been reading lots of geology and history books as I travel to volcanoes for my current book project; readings have ranged from Tambora to Victoria Bruce’s No Apparent Danger about Colombian volcanoes. These books and many others blend travel and science writing to remind us of the dynamic world we live in. Read about the northern lights, then go outside and seem them for yourself. What better connection between reading and experience is there than that?
Do You Read When You Travel?
I, for one, will continue to bring along travel-themed books for all my future trips. Travel books allow you to share another’s journey, teach you about a place, or inspire you to start packing for your own trips. Fiction books and history texts alike can make your own journeys richer. I have learned much about how to—or how not to—travel through travel books of all sorts.
What books have helped you get a sense of a place before you went or provided another context while you were traveling? Do you bring along books while you travel? If so, why?
I continue to read new travel books and review them: head over to the travel book reviews page to see some of these and get inspired to read or travel yourself.