Four years ago, before setting off to visit a friend in South Africa, I received a list with the subject line: “Reading”. The mail contained a smorgasbord of recommended titles as pre-departure homework, and it opened with the obvious: Nelson Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom.
“I’m trying to think of books relevant to the places we’re going—i.e. rural Zululand, the Midlands and Cape Town,” my friend wrote, “Because apartheid history is still so relevant, it’s a must as far as themes go.”
There would be beaches, vineyards and safaris, leavened by race, politics and conflict. “For getting to the heart of South Africa at her worst, any Jonny Steinberg — for gangs (The Number), for HIV (Three-letter Plague), for xenophobia (A Man of Good Hope),” he continued. “For 1990s race relations and impressive prose: Coetzee’s Disgrace. For a new novel about Cape Town by a prodigal young black writer: The Reactive.” That was 50 per cent of the mail. I ended up 100 per cent not following it at the time.
But the idea, I realised, was sound. Since then I have been approaching places I am about to visit with literary ferocity, foraging for reading that will offer a diffused sense of their cultures and illuminate contours you neither expect nor prepare for in travel. I am still a champion of travel guides, pragmatic prose for navigating journeys. But I’ve also become a champion of the kind of sight-seeing-agnostic prose that won’t just hawk you a place but telegraph to you its fundamental essences. It’s my travel pre-game.
Before visiting Hong Kong last year I meticulously searched for all the books I could find set in that city. I ended up reading two. Gweilo by Martin Booth was an unheralded memoir dwelling on the author’s childhood years in British-held 1950s Hong Kong, just after the war. It was funny and poignant, and fashioned such a strong sense of time and place that I felt like I was getting to know the city–or at least a version of it already. Along with the novel The Piano Teacher, it was the gentlest, most perceptive introduction I could have had to Hong Kong.
Later in the year I plunged head-first into the cliché, consuming The Sun Also Rises before passing through immigration in Madrid. Until that trip, I had never felt any urgency to read Ernest Hemingway’s decadent fictional account set before the civil war, a definitive part of the canon. Suddenly, it became unavoidable, and boy, was it a relief to have another Great Book out of the way. (I also studied my Spanish diploma course notes before boarding that flight. Hemingway can help you find the local soul, Libro de Ejercicios can help you find the local cerveza.)
The heady medley of books and boarding passes has consistently thrown up flavourful combinations. For Germany there was Monuments Men, for Jakarta, there was Krakatoa, for Scandinavia, there was crime fiction. The street-level view of Copenhagen was classically beautiful, but the page-level view in The Purity of Vengeance revealed a latent darkness. It wasn’t that one version was more valid than the other, just that its surface charms could also be read alongside its seamier impulses.
To visit a place without reading about it is no longer an option, even if that reading just happens to be smaller portions pillaged online–narrative journalism or investigative pieces about the cities in question. I know people aren’t actively looking for the crummy parts when they travel, but sometimes a place is only as revelatory as its crummy parts. So while I need to drink the local beer and see the local monuments, I also need to read the local paper if I can and ingest the socio-political context, thanks very much. To ignore the weight of Germany’s past or Poland’s hyper-nationalism or South Africa’s racial politics is to travel through a deracinated la-la land purged of historical meaning. You might as well be in Narnia.
Lastly, there is the collateral mind-widening that accompanies the return from a new place. They say books take you to lands unknown. Sometimes lands take you to books unknown. A trip to Israel led me to the landmark Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore, a visit to Indonesia directed me to its literary supernova, Eka Kurniawan and a return from Auschwitz alerted me to Hanns and Rudolf, an account of its kommandant.
These weren’t books that had beeped on my radar when they first arrived into the world, backlit by high praise. But those travels prompted serendipitous discoveries once home. The first trip after deplaning usually ends up being to the library.