TripLit: What I Read When I’m On the Fly

June 2, 2015 1:58 pm

books collage

After my iPhone, shop my Kindle is probably my most indispensable travel accessory. I was a grudging late adopter — I mean come on, who doesn’t love the smell of a nice tangible book and the feel of coarse pages between your fingertips? — but it’s definitely changed the way I travel. Between in-flight movies and the limitless range of literary possibilities tucked away in my purse, I actually really look forward to long-haul flights now (which is probably a good thing since getting anywhere from SA requires a mighty long trek).

I now usually have at least 2-3 books going at once, and before every flight I try to find at least one book, fiction or nonfiction, that’s set in my destination. That adds an extra layer of nuance and color to my trip, as I walk the same streets that characters I’m reading about have been navigating, or have more insight or context to a region’s history or political climate.

There is a big downside to e-readers though: as much as I love sailing through book after book, there’s something about the experience of repeatedly being forced to encounter a physical book’s cover every time you pick it up where you left off — it leaves a solid imprint in your mind. Nowadays I read so many books but they all look the same thanks to the Kindle format, and I really struggle to remember the last few books I read. Or maybe that’s just age.

Here are some of my favorite destination-themed books I’ve read recently.

In PatagoniaArgentina: Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia

There’s definitely something to be said for reading this Patagonia classic while you’re actually in Patagonia, with the staggering landscapes and towns chronicled by Chatwin right in front of you as you read.

Museum of InnocenceTurkey: Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence

This one has an added bonus: after you’ve finished reading the book (warning: start soon because it’s looooong, something you might not realize on Kindle), you can visit the actual Museum of Innocence Pamuk set up in Istanbul (the picture above is of one of the exhibits). It’s really worth checking out whether you’ve read the book or not, but obviously reading it adds a whole other dimension.

Being IndianIndia: William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns and Pavan K Varma’s Being Indian

William Dalrymple is my favorite author, and I originally read his seminal Delhi book City of Djinns over a decade ago. But my trip to the city last December was the perfect occasion for a re-read, to appreciate the way he presents a complex history in a thoroughly relatable way. Before my India trip earlier in 2014, I read Pavan K Varma’s Being Indian, a stark look at what it means to be an Indian in the 21st century. I do have to admit that I read this one in hard copy. (On that trip I also had a guilty pleasure: the trashy but SO juicy Scandal Point by Fahad Samar, a salacious look at the world of Bollywood).

Road to Nowhere Jean Paul KauffmannThe Baltics: Jean-Paul Kauffmann’s A Journey to Nowhere: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of Courland

Let me tell you: trying to find a book set in the Baltics was NOT easy. In fact, I failed. But then, at a hotel I stayed at in Estonia, I came upon this nonfiction book delving into the history of this region that I knew so little about. Full disclosure: I didn’t finish the book before I left the hotel, and no, I didn’t steal it, so this is on my list to download and complete someday.

sunburned countryAustralia: Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project

Even of you’re not planning a trip to Australia, you NEED to read Bryson’s utterly hilarious tome. And if you are going, then you have no excuse. Every single aspect of Oz culture and life I wondered about — from their sports to their insanely persistent flies — he tackled, and with plenty of wit. I was cackling out loud during most of our Great Ocean Road drive. Then I read Graeme Simsion’s best-selling novel The Rosie Project, set in Melbourne. It’s a romantic comedy with a twist — it’s told through the male perspective, and that too of a guy who happens to have Asperger’s Syndrome. Bill Gates has been recommending this book to anyone who’ll listen.

I'm a Stranger Here Myself Bill BrysonAmerica: Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself

Bryson spent two decades in the U.K. before moving back to America, where he experienced the kind of culture shock you can only have when repatriating to a place that moved on without you in your absence. Though I haven’t been gone from the U.S. as long as he had before he moved to New Hampshire, I still thought this book, a collection of columns he wrote for a local newspaper about observations on life back in the States, would be a fitting book for me to read while I was back home last month.

Looking for literary inspiration before your next trip? I recently discovered the excellent site TripFiction, which lets you search by destination for a trove of novels set there.

My next travels are taking me to Berlin and Santorini this week — any favorite books set in either locale you’d recommend?

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