If you’re an avid traveler and even an occasional reader, chances are you’ve read a book that was set in a particular place in the world and thought “I would like to go there.” It may be the history of a place, or the way the author describes the landscape or the feeling, or maybe you just love the book and its characters so much that you just want to see the place that inspired them, but something in the book gets you thinking about travel.
But do you ever follow the trail in the opposite direction, seeking out books – other than guidebooks – that relate to your next destination?
No matter how much you study your guidebook, there’s a lot left to learn about a country before you go, and checking out a few different types of books can help give you more insight into the destination, it’s history, culture and people. Which book you choose may depend on how much you already know, where you’re going and why, but here are a few ideas for different types of books to read about a place before you go.
A history book
Seems like a no-brainer, right? You can’t really understand why a place is as it is unless you know the story of its past. In some places, you may be able to get the info you need from a quick WIKI read or a few Google searches. But if you’re visiting a place with a more complication past – say Berlin or Vietnam – learning more about the past can help you understand that place in the present. If the entire political history of a country isn’t as interesting to you, trace the history of something you are passionate about – the art, the music, the architecture – or just focus on a particular place or time. Maybe you don’t have the patience (or time) to delve thousands of years into the history of China, but you know you plan to visit the Great Wall. Why not read up on how it was constructed? If you have a passion for fashion and are visit France, bone up on your knowledge of how it became the fashion capital of the world.
A novel or work of creative nonfiction set in that place
The characters may not be real, but if the writer has done his or her job, the place they inhabit should come to life on the page. Whether the story is set in the past or present, it may offer insights into the culture, art, or history of a place in a more entertaining way than a dry nonfiction book. You may learn what life is like for a child living in the slums of India or get a humorous look at the difficulties of moving from the US to China, or follow a detective as he tries to solve a rare murder case in Iceland. Even if the stories didn’t happen exactly as written, the nuances of a place may creep into the pages and help you learn a bit as you are entertained.
>> Check out some of the authors who can help you experience a new place through their words
A work by that country’s most famous author
Pick a country and it’s likely that they have a beloved national author. In Ireland it’s James Joyce, in Turkey it’s Orhan Pamuk, in the Czech Republic it’s Milan Kundera. Take the time to learn about the authors that hail from your destination and check out a few of their works. You might learn about the place you’re visiting, and even if not, you’ll have an automatic conversations starter and a little bit of local knowledge to help you navigate the culture.
A biography of a famous person from that country
Just as a history book can help you better understand a country’s present, so can a book about the life of an important figure. Learning about the life of Eva Peron helps you see her gravesite in Buenos Aires‘ Recoleta cemetery as more than just another tomb. And reading about the struggles of Nelson Mendela makes visiting his prison cell on Robben Island in South Africa all the more poignant. Choose an artist, writer, musician, politician, celebrity, or monarch. Learning about their life in that place can help you imagine what it would be like to live there and may also give you more insight into a specific aspect of the culture or history.
>> See some unexpected places where celebrities were born.
Any other ideas? What books do you read to prepare to visit a new place? Or do you prefer to learn as you go?
Photo by afloden