Armchair Travel like a Pro: Reading the World

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

Ever heard the saying “you’re never alone with a book”? There should also be a saying something like this: “you’re never stuck in one place with a book”

Before I ever traveled…I traveled

I know this is true, because long before I wandered far and wide via trains, planes and assorted automobiles (not to mention the occasional rickshaw or elephant), I traversed the world via the written word.  From a very young age, my teachers were curious about my family’s vacation habits and were always surprised, shocked even, to learn that we never went very far.

Some summers we would hop in the car and head to St. Louis to visit an aunt. While we were there, we might spend a day at Six Flags or the Magic House. Other years, we would head south to see the massive boulders at Elephant Rocks in Belleview, Missouri.  I was thirteen, officially a teenager, before my first trip out-of-state and eighteen before I ever flew.

A teacher and reader, herself, my mother always had a simple explanation at the ready for my puzzled instructors: ”Chris reads. Morning, noon, and night, whatever she can get her hands on, she reads. She especially likes to read about far away peoples and places.”

Everywhere is not an option

Even now, as a fairly well traveled adult, I love to read about distant and exotic destinations. Why? Because my reasoning is, I won’t be able to go everywhere I’ve read about, much less everywhere, period. Chances are that you won’t either.

Why traveling via books might be just the ticket

Reading is an inexpensive and relatively low-risk option when compared to actual travel. Also, depending on the destination, reading about it (think Antarctica, the Sahara Desert) can be much more comfortable than actually visiting it. A voyage via books is also a great way to test-drive a destination or culture, before you go, or compare notes after experiencing a new place. Some armchair travelers even enjoy reading about a locale while they’re there.

Even better, there are no physical or economic limits to where words on the page can take you. Maybe you can’t get your hands on the rupees and cents to spend a month traveling around India, or your bad knees, piranha phobia and pollen allergies prevent you from hiking through the Amazon basin —armchair traveling makes these issues irrelevant.  Want to sip tea in Ancient China or mine for minerals on the Moon in the year 3000? No need to pray for a time machine—from ancient history recorded on stone tablets and papyrus scrolls to the modern day e-book—this particular sort of “mental” time machine has been in a constant state of innovation since man learned to write.

An aside: Interestingly enough, the e-book is what makes it possible for a prolific reader like yours truly to freely armchair travel while traveling. When the city or country I’m actually getting to know becomes overwhelming or unpleasant, my kindle offers a wealth of new settings for a refreshing escape in a tiny, portable package.

Disclaimer: On success as an armchair traveler

Of course, to successfully navigate and get to know new places via books, you absolutely must be open to the story and the slice of the world it describes. Cynicism is not a good bosom-buddy when you want a writer to transport you to another place. Good arm-chair travelers, like good travelers period, are aware that an important part of any journey includes being uncomfortable, and getting past your own preconceptions (negative and positive) to certain truths, about yourself, and the culture and place you are trying to get to know.

Finally, a comfortable place to read and a book where setting is an important element in the story won’t hurt your chances at successful armchair travel, either. For some books to help quench your wanderlust, check out the list below:

Books that will get you going (places)

Some great books for armchair travelers with a yen to learn about other places (and times) include:

  • Marlena DeBlasi’s “1,000 days in Venice”: A divorced American chef falls in love (with a stranger, and a city) in Venice.
  • Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail:” After twenty years abroad, American travel-writer Bill Bryson reacquaints himself with his native country by walking the 2,100 miles Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.
  • Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad”: Mark Twain’s  chronicles his humorous escapades in Europe and the Holy Land with a group of American travelers in 1867,
  • Javier Moro’s “Passion India”: The real story of a Spanish dancer who becomes the fifth wife of a ruling maharaja.
  • David Farley’s “An Irreverent Curiosity:  In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town”. An entertaining tale of small town in Italy, and the mysterious disappearance of its holy relic.
  • Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “The Shadow of the Wind”: in 1945 Barcelona, a father introduces his young son to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and in the process introduces the boy to a whole new world.
  • Read.Learn.Write Contributor Andrew Blackman’s “On the Holloway Road”: Two young Londoners search for freedom and purpose on a road-trip around modern-day Britain.

Want more suggestions for traveler readers? Pick up a copy of “Book Lust to Go: Recommended Reading For Travelers, Vagabounds and Dreamers” by Nancy Pearl.

Do you have a favorite book for armchair-travel? Where does it take you? Does it make you want to visit the actual, physical destination?

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Chris Ciolli: A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at ChrisCiolli.com, read about her travels at Midwesternerabroad.com, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Admond.

8 Replies to “Armchair Travel like a Pro: Reading the World”

  1. I so enjoyed reading about Mongolia while I lived there.
    Same with Micronesia.
    In both cases, it seemed that after I’d been there long enough to have tons of questions, the books provided some important answers and insights that I couldn’t get with my limited language skills.

  2. Sometimes I think armchair travel is far more satisfying than the reality. I’m reading Alain de Botton’s ‘Art of Travel’ just now and it’s striking how much our own personalities colour the experience of being abroad. “Always take the weather with you.” Agree about the inevitable discomfort on any journey – a few trips I’ve taken, such as three weeks in Peru with an ex-boyfriend, are much more fun through nostalgic hindsight than they ever were at the time.

    1. Most things are somehow made better through nostalgic hindsight. The disasters that bring you to tears while you’re there, make you laugh until you cry afterwards. I’ll have to look into the “Art of Travel”…sounds right up my alley. How was Peru?

  3. When I was a child I completely got lost in books. I rode horses on the Asian plains, I was a Native American child of the Western prairie, I was an Inuit child on the frozen tundra. My childhood was sad and stressful, and books took me far, far away to places that were exciting and joyful, where I could be a child, and they never asked me to do the chores.

  4. I truly relate to all of these comments about getting lost in a book and yet feeling comfortably “at home” within its pages. My husband and I both travel a lot and I always make a point of reading novels prior to our departure that capture the energy, flavor and history of our upcoming destination. As an only and loney child in a wealthy family, books were a favorite ticket to grand adventures and no doubt fueled both my quest to see all of the places I read about and my passion to become a writer and transport readers myself to the amazing world beyond their bedroom walls.

  5. Reading about a place before you go is a great idea. It allows you to experience the place on another level. Before visiting Orvieto, Italy, I read Marlena deBlasi’s “The Lady in the Palazzo” and it made visiting the town more charming, AND I spotted the author there, on the street.

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