Friday, August 15, 2014

What To Read Where

In his 2011 The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux offered ten essential rules for encountering new places. The rules make useful advice for anyone taking advantage of the doldrums of August to seek out that bit of the state, country, or globe they haven’t sought out before. The eighth rule is especially essential since it hints at a quick stop at your local library before departing.

“8. Read a novel that has no relation to the place you’re in.”

Theroux explains that travel can be lonely enough and overwhelming enough for the traveler to need a break. A novel set in an entirely different place can be, said Theroux in an interview with Rick Steves, “a refuge.” Spend some time in Juneau and eventually you’ll need a break from all the new, Alaskan impressions. Madame Bovary then, and not The Call of the Wild, provides relief.

And with everything around you so different from everything on the page, the characters and settings in the novel will be all the more vivid. Read Madame Bovary in the French countryside and some of the details may pass you by. But read it in Juneau and every part of an opera in Normandy seems strange and wonderful. “Nothing is more memorable,” said Theroux, “than the novel you read in the very, very far away place.”

Here are five reading experiences I’ve had, and one I haven’t, that seem to follow the rule. I recommend all the books, some of the trips too.

This summer I had the fortune or misfortune of  spending a weekend in Las Vegas. My book of choice was Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. When the Mojave Desert felt a bit too expansive, I could spend time with Arthur, trapped in the hold of a Nantucket whaling ship. When the 111 degree heat had me wanting to sit down, I could travel with Arthur to the South Pole.

Visiting a monastery in Charleston, South Carolina I brought along Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji. Among the first novels ever written, Genji is Buddhist where the monastery was Catholic, opulent where the monastery was humble, and full of romance and intrigue where the monastery was at least not visibly either.

On a pilgrimage to Flannery O’Connor’s home in Milledgeville, Georgia I decided not to go the obvious route and instead brought along Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. While Ripley might be bloody enough for O’Connor’s tastes, there are no farmhouses here, only well-dressed cosmopolitans shuttling across Italy.

This could probably be flipped around. O’Connor once famously said, “When in Rome do as you done in Milledgeville.” Why not take this almost literally and read Wise Blood at the Trevi Fountain, A Good Man is Hard to Find at the Pantheon, or Everything That Rises Must Converge at the Spanish Steps? 

And the experience that started off this whole bizarre practice: reading Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar on an Amtrak from New York to Pittsburgh. Granted, Theroux and I were both on trains, and The Great Railway Bazaar is a travel book and not a novel, but the juxtaposition of fiction and reality was exactly as Theroux later recommended in The Tao of Travel. In my hands I had India, Iran, and China, and out the window: Altoona.

No comments: