Seeing new places is always fun, but let’s face it, just looking at the monuments and cathedrals of yet another city can be a shallow experience if you don’t have a real understanding of what you’re seeing. The best way to get that understanding is by doing some reading before you go, and not just blogs and guidebooks — reading novels set in the country you’re headed for.
Blogs and guidebooks can give you lots of good information on what to see and how to see it, but novels and historical books can give you a real glimpse of what it’s like to live in a country and experience its culture. They can let you relive its history, walk the streets, eat in the restaurants — all before you ever arrive.
I’ve used these books as an in-depth introduction to a number of countries, and had a much richer experience because of it. In fact, in some cases reading the book almost literally sent me off to see and feel those countries for myself.
Here are a few destinations, and the classic books that brought them to life for me.
India: Freedom at Midnight Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre
Collins and Lapierre specialized in novelizations of history such as Is Paris Burning? And while some have criticized Freedom at Midnight for a biased, pro-British viewpoint, it does paint a compelling picture of India and the events around its emancipation from England in 1947-48.
The history is fascinating, backed up by scores of first-hand interviews — they even interviewed the people who assassinated Gandhi. But to me the book’s real value was the picture it painted of daily life, customs, and politics in the unique and captivating world that is India. The descriptions of village life were vivid and real, and the depictions of India’s hereditary rajahs were both amazing and hilarious.
Paris: The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway
This is considered Hemingway’s finest novel, and I was inspired to read it — and even bring it along — when I took a trip to France and Spain many years ago. I loved Hemingway’s depiction of the social scene in the cafés of Paris, most of which were still much the same as when he’d written the book in the 1920s.
One evening I found a chapter where Hemingway describes walking home across Paris one night after dinner, detailing his route and all the things he saw. I found his starting point and walked along with him, discovering the old places as they were 60 years later. Some were gone, but I could still find an old sign or an ancient door that kept their memory alive.
The book was an inspiration as I travelled down into Spain, too, following Hemingway and his buddies as they travelled to Pamplona for the running of the bulls. I went to Madrid instead, but honoured Hemingway’s memory with a trip to the bullfights in the famous Plaza de Toros.
Indonesia: Ring of Fire: An Indonesia Odyssey Lawrence and Lorne Blair
Back in the early ’90s, when I was first beginning to travel in earnest, I heard a radio interview with an Englishman named Lawrence Blair. He had returned from a remarkable 10-year trip across the Indonesian archipelago, one of the most exotic places on the planet, and was promoting a book about it.
I immediately got hold of the book, and marvelled at the strange and wonderful things he and his brother Lorne had seen as they travelled from island to island — in some cases on vintage sailing ships helmed by the notorious Bugi men. They saw strange sports, blood feuds, komodo dragons, amazing funeral customs, mystical dances — things from a world most of us never dreamed still existed.
That book later propelled me south, to places like Borneo and Bali, where I had some of the most memorable times of my life. Unfortunately, Lorne Blair has since died, but both brothers have my gratitude. And you can see their exploits in a series of videos also called Ring of Fire (check your local library).
The United States: On the Road Jack Kerouac
There are some books that tell you a lot about where you want to go, and there are others that just make you want to get out there and go. On the Road is one of the latter. To me, it was a revelation, a wild ride across the big wide U.S.A., full of adventure and drama and the sheer joy of being on the move to somewhere or anywhere.
Much of the book takes place in California and the Southwest, and it was in the back of my mind when I travelled through that part of the country by bus and thumb after university. But just as importantly, it helped fuel the lifelong desire that makes people travellers: the yen to go out into the universe, find what’s out there and see what happens. Reread it — maybe it’ll do that for you.
Russia: Nicholas and Alexandra Robert K. Massie
This account of the last days of the Romanov rule in Russia tells a dramatic historic tale. And it was fresh in my mind when I visited the house in St. Petersburg where relatives of the Tsar tried, and finally succeeded in killing Rasputin, the “holy man” who held the royal family in his thrall.
But as with Freedom at Midnight, I was just as captivated by the descriptions of old Russia, with its peasants and aristocrats leading their separate lives in a vast, wintery country like my own. I imagined the frozen fields and horse-drawn sleighs as I read it while sipping tea in the kitchen in the depths of a Canadian winter.
Note: If you’re interested in reading Nicholas and Alexandra, Massie — who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Peter the Great: His Life and World — has written a later book updated with new information. It’s called The Romanovs: The Final Chapter.
Those are five books that breathed life into my travels. Do you have books that gave your trips extra depth? If so, please share them so everyone can have some literary travels.