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A Wanderlust for Words

by Joyce McGreevy on July 11, 2017

Daunt Books for Travelers on Marylebone High St, London celebrates wanderlust and reading while traveling. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Daunt Books for Travelers, on the Marylebone High Street London,
is an original Edwardian bookshop.
© Joyce McGreevy

The Enchantment of
Reading While Traveling

If there were an award for writing and reading while traveling, Emily Hahn would have been World Champion. Early in her 92-year life of wanderlust, Hahn solo-traveled from the Congo to China. That was in the 1920s, and by 1997, Hahn had reported for The New Yorker from around the world, written 52 books, and read voraciously across genres.

She’d also enrolled at an all-male college, overcome opium addiction, carried out underground relief work during WWII, been the concubine of a Chinese poet, married a British spy, and become a pioneering environmentalist.

A vintage edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn symbolizes wanderlust and the pleasures of reading while traveling. (public domain)

Books, like rafts, take us “drifting along ever so far away.”

This summer, as reading and wanderlust become one—when books hit the beaches, travelers recharge e-readers, and reading recharges travelers—consider how Hahn exemplifies the double enchantment of reading while traveling.

As a child, Hahn took to books like an explorer to new lands. “I was a deep reader, plunging into a story and remaining immersed even after I’d finished it,” she wrote in No Hurry to Get Home.

A natural wanderer, she preferred literary characters who were “admirably mobile”—Mowgli, David Copperfield, Huck Finn.

Like Hahn, many a traveler has drifted downriver or flown across continents in the company of a good book. When writers evoke a strong sense of place, even staycationers’ book pages become boarding passes.

Two Bookended Moments  

When my mother was a teenager in the 1930s, she felt electrified by déjà vu while reading a novel set in London. The bolt that leapt off the page described someone crossing the Hammersmith Bridge by taxi. My mother, who lived in the American Southwest, knew she had glimpsed her future.

Eventually forgotten, the moment lay buried for many years. Then one day, the gleaming black cab my mother was riding in crossed a bridge with spectacular green towers. . .

Did Mom know she was nearing The Dove, a favorite Hammersmith pub of novelist Graham Greene? It was he who had evoked a sense of place so powerful that it spanned her future, present, and past.

A woman reading in a window seat of a bookshop in Bloomsbury, London symbolizes the pleasures of reading while traveling, a wanderlust for words. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

The geography of a reader’s world is layered and complex.
© Joyce McGreevy

A Story of Here and Now

Over a lifetime, Mom’s reading-while-traveling encompassed worlds on and off the page.

Her literary wanderlust continued after she’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Once, a doctor found her reading War and Peace and tactlessly asked why she had “started reading such a long book.” My mother cheerfully replied, “Well, if not now, Doctor, when?”

Then she canceled her next two appointments to make one more visit to London.

Lost in Place

Have you ever read a novel about a place while you were in that place, or preparing to go there?

Some travelers say it’s a bad idea and can even make you sick. They’re referring to “Paris Syndrome.” It’s the shock that occurs when romanticized expectations of a place clash with its realities.

Remember that as you lose yourself in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.  Places are alive and revise themselves. Cafés where a “lost generation” of artists once gathered become hubs for Instagrammers with GPS. And who’s to say they aren’t artists, too?

Vintage books on display in Aarhus, Denmark symbolize reading while traveling to distant places and times, through a wanderlust for words. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Vintage books on display in Aarhus, Denmark invite readers to travel
to distant places and times.
© Joyce McGreevy

Bookmarking Places

Still, there are moments when the place in the book and the place outside the book merge into one. Drowsy from southern French sunlight, you look up from A Year of Provence and inhale the fragrance of lavender fields.

A prairie in Illinois recalls Willa Cather’s sense of place and inspires a traveling reader’s wanderlust for words. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

“I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins,
and I did not want to be anything more.”–My Ántonia, by Willa Cather
© Joyce McGreevy

Or you discover a landmark in a town you’ve just moved to, precisely as the protagonist in your audiobook does, too.

That happened to me with The Time Traveler’s Wife. A newcomer to Evanston, Illinois, I was walking to work and listening to the novel on headphones, when I came to a place called Bookman’s Alley. At that very moment, the time-traveling narrator said, “ . . . and lo and behold, it’s Bookman’s Alley.”

Today Bookman’s Alley, one of the last of the great bookshops, is gone—except for readers who time-travel there with author Audrey Niffenegger. Books that evoke real places may become the last outposts of what such places signified.

Sometimes a book, like Huck’s raft, becomes the mode of travel. It takes us to places we’ve never been, in ways we’ll never forget.  That’s how I traveled to Antarctica.

A 19th century French book about the South Pole symbolizes reading while traveling and inspires a traveling reader’s wanderlust for words. (Image public domain)

“One hundred thousand years is just a moment in Antarctica.”
—from Antarctic Navigation, by Elizabeth Arthur

It looked like a giant block of ice—the hardcover book, that is.

It felt like one, too. As I hefted the 800-page Antarctic Navigation, I wondered what had attracted me to a tome encased in images of “the highest, driest, coldest place on Earth.”

Yet in reading Elizabeth Arthur’s narrative, I became an Antarctic citizen, an eager member of a perilous expedition—I who scowled at mild snowfalls and looked horrified if someone uttered the word camping.

Books with a sense of place can do that to us, make us homesick for places we’ve never been and take us more deeply into where we are.

The Readable Suitcase

In 1997, while taking my son to Italy, I decided against purchasing Michael Levey’s acclaimed Florence: A Portrait. Digital editions didn’t exist and the print book weighed several pounds.

But on Day 3 of our month in Florence, I paid double the U.S. price to lug it to a flat on the Via Guelfa. It quickly became our household god, a Virgil to Dante’s city that we consulted at the beginning and end of every day.

Vintage books and suitcases on display in San Francisco symbolize reading while traveling to distant places and times, through a wanderlust for words. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

At SFO, retro suitcases, books, and cameras reflect connections between
traveling, reading, and remembering.
© Joyce McGreevy

So a few stylish outfits missed the return journey. The author’s style was worthier of room in the suitcase.

Oh, I see: Some books are meant to travel; some books are the compass by which we travel; and some books are destinations of their own.

How about you? Placed any good books and booked any good places lately? For more ideas on reading while traveling, download these Wanderlust-Worthy Book Recommendations.


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