I would never have become a traveler if I hadn’t been a reader first. We traveled a lot as kids, but I wasn’t as interested in looking out the window at the sights as I was in plowing through my book. I particularly liked the nomadic characters: Tom Joad from Grapes of Wrath, Chris McCandless in Into the Wild, Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise in On the Road. The world was zipping by outside my car and plane windows, but I fell in love with travel in the pages of books.
Once I started traveling on my own, I realized one of the highlights was that I had hours to kill, and that there was no one to interrupt me. I could read entire books in a single stretch. It got to the point where, while traveling through Belgium a few years back, I found myself skipping museums, cathedrals, and tours just so I could duck into a coffeeshop and finish Trainspotting. Once I finished the book and boarded the train back to my home in London, I realized the sole difference between the trip I’d just spent hundreds of pounds on and what I would’ve done if I’d stayed at home was an order of Belgian waffles.
Obviously, this is not the optimal way to travel. Travelers and readers have a lot in common, but books, as Victor Hugo wrote, are “cold but sure friends,” and they don’t require that you engage with your surroundings. Travel demands engagement. You can’t be passive. Since then, I’ve tried to force the two to complement each other, and I’ve developed a set of reader’s guidelines to travel.
What to bring
I used to be the type of person who said he would never use an eBook reader because he liked the “smell” of actual books, and he liked the “feel of turning the pages” as he read. Clearly, I was an insufferable asshole. Books only smell like paper, mildew, or whatever you’ve spilled on them. And who gives a shit how pages feel? The feeling of dead trees under my fingers is hardly worth having to see the “Footprints in the Sand” bookmark I got for my First Communion every single time I crack open a book.
Even if you’re a true member of the old guard, I suggest getting a Kindle, Nook, or a Kobo solely for the purpose of travel. If you’re a heavy reader when you travel, the space you save and the weight your bags lose alone is worth the investment. eBook readers do run out of batteries, yes, but it takes an insanely long time for them to do so, so you should have time to charge at your hostel. If you’re worried your battery is going to die, bring a single real book along so you’re not forced to read a battered copy of Shantaram or a 20-year-old Fodor’s travel guide from the “Leave One / Take One” bookshelf.
How to travel
The train is your friend. Trains are awesome for a number of reasons: first of all, if they have a sightseeing lounge, which is literally the perfect place to read. Seriously, I’ve never found a better spot, and that includes the beanbags at my childhood public library. Second, trains are slow (fuck the Hyperloop). You can take your time, put your Kindle down, ponder the passage you’ve just read, maybe write a few notes on it and — oh hey, trains have free wifi? Well maybe I’ll just pop onto Goodreads and see what my friends think about this book. Maybe once I finish the book, I’ll use that wifi to download another eBook off Amazon. Thanks, trains!
Planes, while still the best form of travel for getting from Point A to Point B, have a few major disadvantages: The first is that they are too fast. You can’t take your time reading, unless you’re on a 15-hour flight, in which case you should not be reading, but instead pacing the aisles in order to avoid deep vein thrombosis.
The second disadvantage is that airlines will actually insist you turn your eBook reader off during takeoff, which is the worst. If you have to wait 20 minutes while just staring ahead into dead space, you might as well try and sleep through as much of the flight as possible. The third disadvantage is that flights offer alternative forms of entertainment. Why would you read when you could watch Jason Bateman in whatever movie he needed to make to pay his mortgage until the Arrested Development movie comes out?
Other forms of transport are out of the question either because they require your total attention (cars), or are horrible motion sickness machines (boats).
What to do when you get there
Finding the right way to engage with the literature of a country can be tricky. Part of this is because most of the places that are aware of their literary past are marketing it pretty hard: The Latin Quarter in Paris is crawling with literary types hoping to reenact Midnight in Paris, but with the exception of the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, I’ve never found anything in that neighborhood to fill my Hemingway jones. Likewise, visitors to London will find that there actually is no 221B Baker Street, famous home of Sherlock Holmes (though a nearby Holmes museum claims the address), nor is there a 186 Fleet Street, home of Sweeney Todd.
Hunting down fictional locations can be difficult, for obvious reasons, and when the locations do actually exist, you’ll often find that they are either tacky tourist traps or disappointments. The two tricks I’ve found (so far) are these:
- Talk to the locals about their literature. Talk to them about their movies and their art too, for that matter. Literature, culture, and history are all inextricably linked, so when you talk about one, you’re talking about them all. I know of no better way to engage.
- Second, rather than trying to see the sights you read about in the book, try to do the things characters did in the book. Sometimes this is impossible (you should not, for example, go to Vegas and try and take all the drugs they took in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), and sometimes it may clash a bit too much with your values (such as seeing a bullfight like in The Sun Also Rises). But most of the time, it’ll mean either drinking heavily or having a passionate love affair. And who’s going to argue with either of those?
I’d love to hear more suggestions in the comments. As St. Augustine said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”