“The world is a book and those who don’t travel read only one page.”
So says St. Augustine, prolific writer, philosopher and one time Bob Dylan muse, and so echo countless travel bloggers with aesthetically pleasing Instagram grids. Unfortunately, global circumstances being what they are– with borders closed, planes grounded, cruise ships stranded indefinitely– it is not exactly the most relevant attitude to take right now.
So, I propose an alternative thesis: “Books are the world, and those who don’t read stay only in one place.”
We have all developed our own ways of coping with the cabin fever that has resulted from the mandated lockdowns. Jigsaw puzzles. Gardening. Nurturing annoyingly needy concoctions of flour and water. You’re on the internet, you’ve seen all the trends. I’ve tried a lot of them, and even though I beam with pride thinking about my adequately-risen loaf, my budding strawberries, my half-complete map of Hogwarts, none of these activities have been as distracting or restorative as simply opening a book.
Now, I’m a writer, so perhaps this development in the plot of my life lacks a certain twistiness. Stephen King once described books as being “a uniquely portable magic”, and that truth resonates with me more than ever, as books have become the most potent escape there is from days that are otherwise filled with pessimistic news reports and reminders that we’re a long way off from life-as-normal. The ability that stories have to transport you to far off places, to immerse you in new worlds has never been more valuable.
To that end, I’ve compiled this list of books based purely on how thoroughly carried away I felt while reading them. Some are set in exotic, dreamy locations while others are less likely to top any bucket lists but evocative nevertheless. I hope in reading this you’re inspired to find a destination worthy of your own vicarious vacation, and that in its pages you’re able to finally escape.
Where The Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens) — North Carolina
This book spent most of 2019 comfortably ensconced at the top of the New York Times Bestseller list, so you might already be familiar with the wild and rugged coastline of North Carolina, the first stop on our literary tour. If not, a visit is well worth your time, especially via this lyrical, poignant but still eminently readable prose.
This is the story of Kya, “The Marsh Girl” abandoned by her family at a young age and left to fend for herself along the Carolina wetlands. She is almost literally raised by nature, taking behavioral cues from the animals and insects she observes in her cove, until her teenage years when the solitude she’s become so accustomed to is disrupted by two very different young men.
Before becoming a novelist, Owens was a wildlife scientist, and her odes to nature have often been compared to Barbara Kingsolver’s style, but the story takes an interesting shift into John Grisham courtroom drama territory when one of the guys ends up murdered and Kya stands accused. It is a tale of survival and human connection, written with a trained biologist’s loving eye for detail and a poet’s urgency to find meaning in it all.
Beneath A Scarlet Sky (Mark Sullivan) — Italy
Books that take place during the Second World War are basically a genre unto themselves at this point, but while fictional accounts of the war in England, France, Germany, even Poland, seem to burst forth from bookshelves everywhere, stories set against an Italian backdrop have somehow remained quite rare, at least in my reading experience. Beneath A Scarlet Sky takes you from the fashion district of Milan to the most dangerous passes of the Italian Alps, detouring through the war-ravaged countryside and even making a stop at Mussolini’s lake house. Beyond its underrepresented setting, this story also stands out because it is true– or it’s partly true, or “inspired by the truth” at the very least, considering of course that it’s a novelist’s prerogative to embellish.
Either way, we meet Pino Lella, a young Italian teen who is mostly unconcerned with the war until his parents send him and his brother away to a boys camp up in the mountains, one that is run by Catholic priests. There, he becomes involved with smuggling Jewish families across the border to safety in Switzerland, a journey that is uniquely treacherous each time Pino undertakes it. Just as he’s settled into his new role, his parents call him back to Milan, having now enlisted him as an assistant to a high-ranking Nazi General, again in an effort to ensure his safety. Pino uses this role to become a spy for the Allies, and though he is no longer navigating between avalanches, his new life is just as perilous. From here, his story takes some turns that are almost Forrest Gump-ian, given the number of important events he witnesses and all the historically significant characters he encounters. I almost don’t want to know how much of this story is grounded in fact and how much is fiction, because it’s much more fun to believe that all of it is indeed true.
The prose at work here isn’t particularly lovely, and the dialogue can sometimes be clunky, but I think the writing accomplishes something special nevertheless. Enormity is a difficult concept to convey through words alone– that feeling of insignificance you get when you stand to face the ocean, or hover near the edge of the Grand Canyon, or, in this case, get swallowed up in the vast middle of the Alps. It’s a singular emotional experience that our current lockdown prevents us from having right now, but in the meantime this story is a fine substitute.
On The Road (Jack Kerouac) — American Highways
There’s a reason that people pair white t-shirts with blue jeans, that the Rolling Stones play Satisfaction at the end of every concert, that pie should always be accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream– classics are classics for a reason, and a list of travel books would be egregiously incomplete without this seminal tome.
Widely considered one of the most important pieces of American literature, On The Road hardly needs my praise or recommendation. It’s the definitive text of the Beat generation, a tale of jazz and drugs and poetry and the relentless, pulsating rhythm of long highway drives. I know people who adore this book (every American Apparel clad boy I ever met between the years 2008 and 2013) and people who loathe it (my best friend, and also Truman Capote, who once famously described Kerouac’s style as “not writing, but typing”) and still others who have found that their opinion on the text has evolved over time.
The story evokes the ideals of frontierism that are unique to this continent, the ever-tempting calls of the wild west and the open road. Dean Moriarty, the novel’s most dynamic character, is defined by his inability to be satisfied by any one city, one relationship, one meal. He’s a profoundly selfish figure, but to a modern audience collectively stuck running in place, his reckless, obsessive nature takes on a kind of morbid appeal.
All of the recommendations on this list are about living vicariously through written words, but after more than eight weeks of watching all kinds of possibilities and opportunities steadily erode, I think the On The Road lifestyle is especially alluring: “There was nowhere to go but everywhere,” narrator Sal Paradise rhapsodizes early on, “so we just kept rolling under the stars.” I can only hope that some variation of that sublime freedom is in store for us all when this is done.
Educated (Tara Westover) — Buck’s Peak, Idaho
If you’re looking for the psychological benefits that supposedly come from taking an imaginary vacation, I’m not positive that rural Idaho is the destination that will immediately leap to mind. Nevertheless, the area’s mountains and wilderness provide a dramatic backdrop for Educated, Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up among a family of Mormon survivalists before ultimately finding refuge and salvation in higher academic pursuits.
This book received all kinds of hype after its publication in 2018; settled snugly among the New York Times Nonfiction Bestsellers for endless weeks and landed on recommended lists by the likes of Bill Gates and Barack Obama. It’s easy to be sceptical of that kind of fanfare, but ten pages in, I was prepared to enthusiastically co-sign every single glowing review.
Unlike the other titles on my list, Educated is the opposite of escapism. It is an enthralling but often difficult read, as it details the litany of physical, mental and emotional horrors that Tara endured throughout her childhood. She uses pseudonyms to protect the identity of her parents, who so feared government persecution that they denied their seven children not only access to education but vaccinations, routine doctor’s visits, even proper birth certificates. Instead of receiving any kind of schooling, Tara was made to labor with her father and brothers in the salvage junkyard, where safety standards could generously be described as below standard, and plenty of gruesome injuries were sustained in consequence. As Tara grows, she encounters even more toxic aspects of her family’s patriarchal values and becomes the unfortunate victim of torment and gaslighting by her older brother Shawn.
Despite these origins, Tara’s innate curiosity propelled her towards education. She found success first at Brigham-Young University before progressing to Harvard and then Cambridge, where she eventually achieved her PhD. While I’ve been waxing poetic about the transportive power of literature, this story is a testament to how far books can literally take you.
A Moveable Feast (Ernest Hemingway) — 1920’s Paris
Perhaps the only subject that is more frequently romanticized than the city of Paris is the life of the starving artist. Ernest Hemingway manages a wistful and idealistic portrayal of both in his memoir A Moveable Feast, which concerns itself with his early years as an unknown writer, trying to scrape by in the famous city.
Predictably, I have long been fascinated by all things Parisian, and especially Paris in the 1920’s when it became a haven for all kinds of legendary artists on the cusp of their iconography. There is something innately captivating about the concept of so many brilliant people being drawn to the same place at the same time, like the universe has a literal wellspring of genius, and the pursuit of it led everyone to the narrow, smoky, café-lined streets of Paris.
All of the usual suspects make their appearances here, from Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald to Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Ezra Pound. Hemingway cautions that what he’s written is probably not absolutely accurate in terms of historical fact, colored as it is by his own biases, faulty memories, and that inescapable desire all writers have to clean their stories up, to clearly distinguish between the heroes and the villains and thus create a more coherent narrative. Indeed, since it was published posthumously, the book reads like a curious blend of truth and fiction, of journal entries and sketches for a future novel, of honest recollections and the work of a deeply troubled man staring down the end of his life, trying to pinpoint a moment he might have been happy.
The Paris that Hemingway writes about is Paris as every self-respecting hopeless romantic imagines it to be. He lived in a shabby apartment on the Left Bank, was a regular customer at the now-famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop, and wiled away full days writing at various cramped cafés in St Germain. He and his first wife Hadley spent their summers in Pamplona or along the Riviera, their winters trekking around the Alps– and in my opinion, skiing before the age of chairlifts is a feat roughly as admirable as churning out For Whom The Bell Tolls.
Between these scenes from an erudite life, Hemingway provides some words of wisdom on what it means to write. There is a definite Hemingway school of style, and it is a school I would almost certainly flunk, though I have always admired his precision, his economy with language– but it is the removed, hazy admiration that, say, a hoarder might have for Marie Kondo’s disciplined decluttering. Congratulations on being a titan of literature, Ernest, but you will take my adverbs from my cold dead hands.
Instead, it is Hemingway’s philosophy on Paris that is my enduring takeaway from this book. “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man,” he tells us, “then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” While current flight restrictions might prohibit us from following Hemingway’s prescription exactly, I can attest that this book is itself one that stays with you, its own kind of decadent, satisfying, moveable feast.
Less (Andrew Sean Greer) — Globetrotting
Winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize, this overachieving novel takes its readers to not just one destination, but on a halting, haphazard journey around the globe, with stopovers of varying success in Paris, Morocco, India, and Japan.
Our hero, Arthur Less, is a middle aged novelist of no particular renown but still inundated with plenty of invitations to assorted international literary events. Plagued by anxiety and saddled with no small amount of vanity, Arthur has routinely put off responding to any of them, until a categorically different invitation arrives– a request to attend the wedding of his ex-boyfriend. In order to save face, he sends back a “Yes” to all the other summons in order to honestly RSVP with “Regrets” to the most important one.
So Arthur embarks on his grand tour, clumsy, naïve and altogether likeable, a satirical portrait of the American abroad. I’ll warn you here that this is not the sort of tale that typical earns the Pulitzer. It is comedic, for one thing, which for some reason is rare among Important Books, and also soft, gentle, incurably optimistic– a few critics have even called it sappy.
The story is concerned with lost chances and unfulfilled potential and the ability to find yourself content in spite of it all. In a strange way, I was reminded of It’s A Wonderful Life, which, unless you’ve sustained memory damage in an unfortunate incident involving a Christmas tree that fell on your head, you’ll recall is similarly about a man who doesn’t think his life has amounted to much. Unlike George Bailey, Arthur’s dissatisfaction is milder and more abstract, and he never requires the intervention services of a heavenly apprentice. Instead his growth happens the way it does for plenty of real-life travellers– through chance encounters, moments of transcendent perspective, and plenty of high jinks.
The Lost Girls (Jennifer Baggett, Holly Corbett, Amanda Pressner) — Backpacking
I’m allowing myself one sentimental pick to finish off this verbal voyage, like a travelling companion who insists on going back to diners they loved as a child in lieu of Michelin star restaurants. The other books on this list have been bestsellers and beloved classics and winners of prestigious prizes. The Lost Girls is none of those things, and more critical readers might not be able to look past some of its technical flaws, but I love this book with my whole heart because it is an echo of some of the most euphoric moments in my own life.
A travel memoir in the traditional sense, the story comes via rotating diary entries by Amanda, Holly, and Jen, three New Yorkers who are one Samantha short of their own show on HBO. Approaching thirty and conflicted about where their lives are going, they agree to put everything on hold– careers and relationships included– to travel together for a year. The itinerary they design is ambitious, to say the least. They hike Machu Picchu, volunteer in Kenya, and attend yoga school in India before fully adopting the backpacker’s lifestyle around Australia and South East Asia.
The voices of the three tend to blend together– their similarities are probably what make them all such good friends, and the story is light on conflict, which is how it should be, because above all it’s a celebration of friendship, of the particular way bonds get strengthened when you’re on a new continent where no one else within thousands of miles even knows your name.
I was lucky enough to go on my own extraordinary trip with my two best friends, and it remains one of the most impactful experiences of my life. If I was a comic book superhero, it would be my origin story, that summer we spent traipsing through lavender fields and swimming in hot springs, eating only desserts, sailing on pirate ships and taking train rides that lasted entire days. In a short span of time I learned a great deal about myself, both good (a surprising aptitude for navigating walks in strange strange cities) and shameful (a persistently lousy mood when access to my iTunes library is compromised).
I think that’s one of the best things about travelling, and certainly something I find myself missing a lot right now, the way it leaves you knowing yourself a little better. The Lost Girls does a commendable job of articulating that phenomenon, as each of the girls experiences some personal evolution, and they all more or less achieve the clarity they originally sought. “You can’t know who might cross your path or who will take your breath away. You can’t know what friends might actually become sisters because they stayed by your side. You can’t know when there’ll be an unexpected detour that’ll take you to the place where you were always meant to be.”
If there are any books you’ve read lately that gave something of a passport stamp to your imagination, I would love to hear about them. I welcome advice from other aspiring literary travel agents, because as you can imagine, for the foreseeable future I’ve got no place in particular to be.
2 thoughts on “Destination By Imagination: 7 Books That Take You Somewhere Else”
Geez Ainsley: Here’s me just finishing your last recommendation, The Goldfinch, and now this; another wealth of reading suggestions. If The Goldfinch is anything to go by, you have exquisite and discriminating taste. But full disclosure? I’ve taken two stabs at Kerouac. This will be his last chance. You and I both know that one’s appreciation of a book has much to do with one’s temperament at the time of reading. So I’l go for stab three. Also glad to see you cited Dylan’s invocation of Augustine; not only because Auggie’s such a great go-to saint for inspiration (he is) but also because artists like Dylan and you recognize that God created scripture, saints, parables, flowers, weather, animals, landscapes, human facial characteristics, rock lyrics, professional sports and everything else for the sole purpose of giving writers metaphors and analogies. Scientific fact. Keep up the great work.
I’m so glad you found The Goldfinch as impressive and engaging as I did. I can’t promise that any of these books can match that singular reading experience, but they’re all special in their own way– maybe not Kerouac, who might be the cilantro of writers. Some people will love him, and to others, no matter what, he tastes like soap.
You make an excellent case for Augustine being made the patron saint of writers– although apparently he’s already the patron saint of brewers, which I’m sure at least in Hemingway’s estimation is basically the same thing.