I love to bring books when I travel. And I’m not just talking about the standard bestseller plane reads you can pick up at any airport newsstand. When I venture to a new place, I prefer to seek out a book set in that location. Or when that’s hard to find, I will look for local literature on-site to expand my understanding of the place I’m visiting. (I should say that I’m not discussing guidebooks or hard histories here; I use both, but they are not my focus.)
Consuming literature set in the places you travel helps establish a tone for your journey. It tells you what to look for in a location and hones your ability to appreciate it when you encounter it. None of this is to say that you shouldn’t form your own opinions. But reading what previous visitors and residents understand about a place is like consulting the tasting notes for an unfamiliar wine. Ultimately you must taste for yourself and determine whether you like the vintage, but it helps to know that the vineyard is renowned for jammy reds or that you’re nuzzling an un-oaked chardonnay.
Below are several location picks paired with complementary book selections. The literature of the world is as vast as the world itself, so you should certainly swap in different books if they appeal more to you. (In fact, go ahead and swap in a film too if that’s your thing.) Here are my top picks:
Location: The Appalachian Trail
Book: Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods
We’ve written about this book [link to project hikes story] and this trail before, but they bear raising again here. Bryson’s hilarious and meaningful volume is subtitled “Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail”, and this is essentially what he does. At times humorous, informative, and inspirational, A Walk in the Woods would be a great companion book for any outdoor adventure, but it holds a special place in the hearts of hikers. Bryson’s depiction of navigating the world of hiking gear — a subject close to our hearts— is worth the price of admission by itself. (It was also recently turned into a film.)
Location: The English Countryside
Book: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles
Sir A. C. Doyle’s third Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, is set in Devonshire and London, but its essential spookiness will feel at home in any forested and foggy environment: Scotland, Wales, Denmark, New England, even parts of Africa — although there are rich literary traditions in those parts of the world as well. Doyle’s tale of his iconic consulting detective spreads in readers’ minds like peat moss, spawning visions of rolling hills, cozy fabrics, dim lanterns and (possibly) ghost dogs. If you’ve ever traveled in the foggier, more verdant parts of the former British Empire — Scotland, Ireland — you know they are truly places where magic threatens to lurk behind every bramble and crumbling stone wall. Numerous books capture this spirit, but for me Doyle distills its essence best. Snuggle up and enjoy.
Location: The Peruvian Amazon
Book: David Grann’s The Lost City of Z
This book, later turned into a movie, began as an article by the New Yorker’s David Grann. In many cases our travel reading presents an idealized version of the place in which it is set. As we read, we picture ourselves in those places, having those adventures, bathing in those waterfalls or steeping in those hot springs. This will not be the case with The Lost City of Z, a book largely devoted to describing the remarkably unpleasant things that happened to Percy Harrison Fawcett, a British Colonel and explorer who vanished into the Amazon rainforest along with his son and a companion in 1925. But it’s also filled with a sense of adventure and a promise of discovery, as you follow Grann, following in their footsteps. There is a lovely and active cottage industry running restored riverboats on the Amazon in Peru. I have been on one of these excursions and they are extremely pleasant. I had not read Lost City of Z when I went riverboat cruising, but I’m positive that if I had, I would have sat up on the top deck sipping a beer and thinking “Man, I’m glad that’s not happening to me!”
Lost City of Z is a survivalogue—like many of John Krakauer’s works, or books about Shackleton. It is also a piece of literary non-fiction depicting Grann’s attempts to discover what happened to Fawcett and to explore the latter’s theories about a lost city in the Amazon. It’s a truly incredible story and a massive research undertaking that will make you appreciate your comfy digs and modern wicking gear even more!
Do you have a favorite book tied to a special place? Let us know in the comments!