On my way home from the south of France last week, I tore through Andrew Sean Greer’s novel, Less. The story follows the inexplicably charming Arthur Less on a round-the-world solo sojourn. This matched up nicely with my own mood. After a few days off on my own, I shared Less’s curiosity and mildly pleasant sense of displacement throughout my 15-hour journey back to Los Angeles.
I’m a fan of this sort of destination-based reading—attempting to match a setting and vibe to a place where I’m traveling. Or sometimes, using a book with a strong sense of place to escape. Less, bless him, took me to Berlin clubs, the Moroccan desert, and a Japanese mountain garden when I might have just been stuck in a stuffy airplane.
While in France, I read Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence—which was good, but not as good as reading his Corsican Caper on Corsica and attempting to match the characters rosé-for-rosé. M.L. Longworth’s mysteries also lend themselves to the Provençal bon vivant, and on my first trip to Cannes I brought a library copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (which I kept for so long I eventually had to buy it).
“On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half way between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-colored hotel,” Fitzgerald begins. “Deferential palms cool its flushed façade, and before it stretches a dazzling beach.”
Who would ever want to come home?
A couple weeks back I asked all of you for similar recommendations. You too, I learned, are enthusiastic literary travelers, and were generous with your replies. “We always buy books set in the places we travel,” wrote one of you, “and carry a small mobile library in a special bag.”
“I fell in love with the habit when I read Dubliners in, well, Dublin,” wrote another. “The city brought the book to life, while the book gave the city a whole new dimension.”
One reader enjoyed Madeline Miller’s Circe while in Greece, then saw statues of its characters (Greek gods) at the Parthenon. Another read Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul and visited the museum, which is an actual place. You recommended Tahir Shah’s The Caliph’s House and In Arabian Nights to the Morocco-bound, Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood for those headed to Japan, and Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father for a deeper understanding of Cambodia.
Even if you are not in possession of a long-haul ticket, destination reading can make books a portal to another place. Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies, William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, and William Snaith’s On the Wind’s Way sent me swimming, surfing, and sailing. And Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars plunged me into the post-apocalyptic Rocky Mountains from my bed in the ‘burbs. (Heller’s latest, The River, takes you exactly where its title suggests.)
The ambitious among you might try reading a book in its native-written language, as former NATO supreme allied commander James Stavridis told me he likes to do. Stavridis is learning Portuguese, and when I recommended visiting Bahia, Brazil, via the novels of Jorge Amado, he told me he had read them all. If you haven’t, I highly recommend Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, The War of the Saints, and Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon.
There is a wide world of destination-based reading out there, and Quartz’s Sangeeta-Singh Kurtz has compiled your recommendations—plus many more from our colleagues—into a list categorized by continent to kick off your summer reading.
Happy travels, and have a great weekend!
If you really are traveling, may I recommend … compression socks? These calf-squeezing knee-highs are a must on long flights, especially if you’re the sort to get swollen ankles and feet. I keep a pair in the travel bag that also holds my neck pillow, ear plugs, and eye mask—a suite of unsexy but essential accessories. My favorite thing about compression socks is the moment when I liberate my legs from their tyranny, and feel the corduroy-like print their ribbing leaves in a ring below my knees. I am not the only writer inspired by this embrace. In a delightful letter of gratitude this week, the New Yorker’s Andrea DenHoed shared how her former shame in her toeless compression socks—which like mine, leave “a deep imprint in the fat deposit between my knee and my calf muscle”—has turned to pride. “These days, I put them on in the boarding area, for God and everyone to see,” she writes. “Wearing compression socks has become an act of self-assertion, an acknowledgement that my body is subject to the forces of the universe and a reassurance that, when necessary, I can exert forces of my own.”