As all vagabonds know – deciding exactly what to put in that rucksack or travel bag before you set off on your next adventure is crucial. Space is limited and weight is the enemy, so every item must be carefully considered, mulled over, and possibly rejected once or twice before finally earning its place. Ideally all items have more than one purpose and are capable of earning their keep many times over.
So given your lack of space – why on earth would you take a novel with you on your journey? It’s bulky, heavy, and it’s not even a guide book or a history, so how is that going to help you with the practicalities of day-today travel?
The truth is, it won’t. But who wants a life of practicalities? Where’s the romance and adventure in that?
When I travel I want to absorb the place I’m visiting. I want it to creep under my skin and spill out in my conversations with the locals. I want to understand what they are thinking, what they’ve been through and what makes them who they are. I want to know the places where people fall in love, where they play with their children, or are shocked by family secrets. I want to go on an emotional journey as well as a real-life one.
And I can’t get that from a guide book.
But I can, and I do, get this from novels.
Not any novel. Sci-fi set in remote galaxies or books about fantasy worlds far into the future have their place of course – but I would argue that it’s not in your rucksack.
What you need is a novel (or three!) set in the place you are traveling to. Believe me – this changes everything. No city is a stranger when you have met it first on the pages of a novel.
Trekking along some of the smugglers’ trails of the Pyrenees will mean so much more to you if you have just read about those very same trails being used in WWII to spirit downed allied airmen out of France (some heart-stopping scenes in Dave Boling’s novel ‘Guernica’) and having a flutter at the Casino Estoril near Lisbon is a much more romantic experience when you realize this is where spies and dispossessed royals partied their way through the war (all is revealed in Robert Wilson’s crime novel ‘A Small Death in Lisbon’). You will never look at a bridge in the Bosnian capital the same way again after reading harrowing descriptions of besieged residents trying to survive sniper fire in 1992 (Steven Galloway’s ‘The Cellist of Sarajevo’) and you will have far more respect for the drivers of Delhi after sharing your days with amateur philosopher Balram Halwai (Aravind Adiga’s ‘The White Tiger’).
They may be fiction, but these novels ooze just as much history, politics and contemporary culture as any guide book. And their stories remain with you long after your journey has ended.
So assuming I now have you convinced that reading novels set in your destination is a good idea, you are going to tell me that you could do all this with some kind of electronic device – a kindle, ipad or even your iphone. This is true – and I have to admit that I never travel without a kindle now.
BUT – I always have a novel as well. At least one. And this is why…
1) It gives you something to read when the plane is taking off and landing, when they won’t let you have any electronic devices on.
2) It keeps you company when your batteries are flat
3) You can still read in muddy, wet or sandy places
And my very favorite reason…
4) It is one of the best ways to make friends on the road. If people can see what you are reading, they are interested. They’ll come and chat with you, ask you if it’s a good book – especially if it is set in your location. In my experience, people just don’t do this with a kindle. The paperback novel is a wonderful conversation piece.
And when your reading is done?
You get to seek out someone else who has just finished a book and do a swap. If you are really lucky, you’ll find someone who is ready to trade a book set in the next place you are heading off to and you can start all over again.
As Vago tells us, vagabonding is about celebrating the spirit of adventurous travel, letting it bring you in touch with local people, culture and landscapes – next time why not let a novel help you make that journey?
Suzi is the editor of Packabook Travel Novels, a website which explores that special place where travel and literature meet. She likes nothing more than helping you find the perfect novels to match your itinerary. Find a book set in your next destination at Packabook.com