Travel by the book — literature that inspires travel

by Laura Townsend Elion on March 29, 2010


Recently CNN featured an article about great movies that inspire you to travel. It hit a lot of the high notes — Out of Africa, Roman Holiday, etc. – but it made me think, being more of a literary type, of the books that have made me want to travel.

Going back to when I was about ten, I remember pouncing on the Harlequin romances a relative left sitting around. I couldn’t wait to read them — not for the romance (which was admittedly tame back then) but because many of them featured stories set in exotic (to me then) locales — Italy, Greece, or Australia. While thin on plot, the books were often chock full of lavish descriptions of local points-of-interest and lush landscapes.

Thankfully, I progressed to weightier reads. Amid all the classics I downed for the courses in literature at Hopkins, I snuck in a few, shall we say, more self-serving choices. In fact, more than interesting characters or a classic plot twist, the one thing guaranteed to hold my attention most in a book is a vivid description of somewhere I want to visit. Simply put, the location is, for me, the best character in the book.

Recently, I finished “Travels in a Thin Country” by Sara Wheeler. If this book about Chile doesn’t make you want to grab the next flight to Santiago and hitchhike through the country, nothing will. Though much may have changed in the ten plus years since the book was published, I doubt anything could permanently subdue the innate majesty of the landscape she describes. While the book leaves nothing sugar-coated in its descriptions of low budget, fly-by-the seat-of-your-pants travel (scabies, overly officious border guards, absolute poverty) it still makes you ache to see it.

From the glacial, arctic archipelago, through the high Andes, to the scorching desert, and the coastal beaches, Chile has a diversity of topography that boggles the mind. It made me realize that the South American escarpment was more than just a jumping off point for Easter Island.

Having just mentally ravished Chile, I was hungry the second I put the book down for another helping of armchair traveling. And that caused me to remember a grab bag of books that have delightedly taken me afar in the past. Here’s a few to inspire and encourage you. I’ve omitted some selections that have gone on to become recognizable Hollywood movies, and those that are just obvious (anything by Michener, Theroux, or Hemmingway), in favor of the more obscure.

“Spring Moon,” a novel about China by Betty Bao Lord, helped me see two Chinas — the one that was, and the one we have now. More than its descriptions of geography, it helped me understand the nuances of pre-Mao culture, one that is just as beautiful, hierarchal, complex, and often times self-destructive as that in monarchial Europe. Perhaps it also appealed to me because Ms. Lord, like me, is the product of both British and Chinese genes, although hers are a little closer to the surface than the third generation ones that course through me.

Because going places is often more a matter of state of mind than miles, it is a great primer in the pecking order of old-World China and a must read before any visit to the Imperial city. “Saving Fish From Drowning” by Amy Tan is also a great way to look into the inscrutable Oriental mind and to commiserate over the fickleness of travel while sampling some of the remotest parts of Asia with your fingers.

“Caravan to Xanadu” by Edison Marshall is probably out of print but worth looking up. I think I rubbed the ink off the pages of this fictionalized version of Marco Polo’s travels I read it so many times. Although written as a novel, the spicy mystique of Marco’s silk road expedition shines though. It inspired a wanderlust that has stayed with me all of my days. Like the latter-day mystery “Orient Express” (also a good travel-inducing read) it satisfies those for whom the term “multicultural” is an invitation. From territory to territory, tribe-to-tribe, and situation-to-vexing situation, the Silk Road Polo travels along is a thief infested, danger-mongering, exotic travail that makes him the Indiana Jones of overland travel.

Onto the sea, “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson is a story that charms the young and refreshes the old. Because travel is often about looking for a treasure of some kind, the classic makes the imagination stray to places unseen and linger until they want to find them. More than just a children’s tale, like Gulliver’s Travel’s or Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe, it provides the spark that can get you going, and can be the perfect way for a child to learn of the magic that awaits when exploring faraway lands. Reading it in advance is an excellent way to inject fun into any planned island visit with children. (Just emphasize that it’s safe because you have return tickets!)

Wanna think about Mexico as more than the land of Margaritas? Read “Conquest: Cortes, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico” by Hugh Thomas. Thomas wraps a brilliant narrative around the history of the Cortes expedition, follows the society that emerged and helps explain the tangled relationship of the Castilian and Mexican royal families that were involved. His poignant description of the Aztec world that Cortes ruined is a great reminder of the power and majesty of an empire and the improbablity that it took relatively few troops to subdue it.

So that’s a small part of my eclectic assortment of books that have inspired or informed my travels. In my next column I will add to this list. I What are some of yours?

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  • Marilyn Long

    When I read Independent People by Haldor Laxness, a Nobel Laureate in literature from Iceland, I was intrigued by the descriptions of the country and longed to go there. He told of the unusual combination of natural features (glaciers and hot springs, volcanos and waterfalls) as well as the types of houses in the remote areas. Several years later, I was able to travel there and Iceland did not disappoint me.

  • http://www.packabook.com Packabook – Travel Novels

    What a fantastic selection of books, I will certainly be investigating some of these further.
    I particularly love novels that give me some understanding of the history of a place. Have just finished ‘The Glass Room’ by Simon Mawer – a fictionalised account of a real house and city in Czechoslovakia between the 1920′s and the 1960′s, covering the occupation by the Nazis and the Russians. Just makes me want to go to Brno and see the Tugendhat Villa for myself!

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