SOMETIMES YOU JUST CAN’T AFFORD to travel. Maybe you just got back from a big trip that you spent all of your money on and you still have the bug, or maybe you’ve got other obligations you have to take care of before spending on a plane ticket. There are three things you can do to quench your wanderlust in this scenario. First, you can make the financially irresponsible decision and go traveling anyway. Second, you can get super depressed. Or third, you can crack open a book.
The best books are ones with extremely well-defined settings — backdrops so perfectly described that you feel you’re almost there. These books feel like travel in their own right, and they cost you a tiny fraction of what you would’ve paid to buy a plane ticket. Here are 7 books that will take you somewhere new.
The Dominican Republic (and Paterson, New Jersey) — The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Junot Diaz’s great, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an amazing look into the lives of American immigrants, and its two settings are essential to the book. Parts of the book take place in Oscar’s ancestral homeland of the Dominican Republic, and the other half takes place in Paterson, New Jersey (which, to be honest, you may want to travel to in book form only). Diaz’s language practically crackles off the page, to the extent that you can basically feel what it’s like to live in the DR or in urban NJ.
Paris (and London) — Down and Out in Paris and London
The legendary George Orwell’s first book is a travelogue about the time he spent living in poverty in Paris and London. The larger part of the book covers life as a poor working stiff in 1920’s Paris, and it provides a more colorful vision of the City of Light than anything written by Hemingway. Orwell’s particular talent is in showing the grimy, smelly underbelly of the two great cities in a way that other writers — possibly feeling too much nostalgia for a bygone Golden Age — tend to gloss over. But by showing these seedy underbellies, the cities feel real for the first time.
Barcelona — The Shadow of the Wind
Franco’s Spain was not a particularly nice place to live, especially in the city of Barcelona, where a vibrant resistance and separatist movement against the fascists meant regular crackdowns and oppression from the police. In Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s amazing The Shadow of the Wind, a young boy is taken to “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books,” a secret library kept hidden from the public (and from the police), and is drawn into a much darker version of Barcelona than those of us who have visited in recent years will be familiar with.
The Arctic — The Terror
Dan Simmons’ horror book The Terror is a fictionalization of a real-world exploration catastrophe from the 1840’s, when the crews of two ships that were searching for the Northwest Passage became stranded in the Arctic Ice. The book goes the supernatural route and shows the sailors being hunted by some sort of monster, but most striking about the book is its depiction of the extreme brutality of the cold in the Arctic Winter. You’ll always feel a little cold after putting the book down.
Dublin — In the Woods
If you loved Gone Girl or Girl on a Train, you’ll love Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad books. In the Woods is the first (and darkest) in the series, but you can start wherever you like. Each book deals with a different detective investigating a different case, and there hasn’t been a bad book in the series yet. What’s most impressive, though, is how each book manages to illuminate a little bit more about the city of Dublin, whether it’s looking at its poor projects, its preppy schools, or its creepy, possibly haunted suburbs.
Edinburgh — Trainspotting
Yes, you’ve probably seen the movie adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s classic book Trainspotting, but there’s nothing quite like the book — it’s written in Scots dialect, so can seem impenetrable at first, but once you start understanding the dialect, it’s one of the most powerful books you’ll ever read. Welsh’s Edinburgh is a depressed, grimy place full of heroin addicts and violent thugs that still somehow captures the imagination. If you don’t want to read something you’ve already seen the movie of, try the prequel Skagboys, or the unrelated (but still based in the same universe) Glue.
Mercury — 2312
Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2012 novel about Earth 300 years in the future is, in some ways, pretty bleak — climate change has put the world’s coastal cities underwater, and the planet is overcrowded. But we’ve also managed to colonize the other planets in the solar system. And it’s the trips you take to the other planets that makes this book truly incredible, particularly when it comes to Mercury, the closest planet to the sun. The trip 2312 takes you on through the solar system will make you hope that space travel can become widespread in your lifetime.