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.

Home is Where the Adventure Starts and Ends

Alicia and I are gearing up for a trip in June. We are going to perform the traditional American tourist adventure where we attempt to gobble up as many delicate European morsels as we possibly can, hold them in our mouths, and then attempt to return home and spit them out to our friends and family. Aside from relying on a few additional guest posts here, nothing will change for you, the reader, of the site. I will probably share something from the trip when we get back and I have some travel related guest posts lined up to entertain you in our absence. That’s not the point of the post, though. The point of this article is to consider what “home” is and the concept of “home” can effect our reading.

What is “Home?”

Every time I start to think about taking a trip I reconsider “home.” Is my home where I am or where my loved ones are? Is home where my books are? Is home where I go to be healed and rest? Is home a traveller’s sanctuary? Is home the place you can be exactly who you are? Is home where you go when you’ve got no place else to be? Is home where you can decide how things should be and make them that way? Is home where some of our lives happen and where our dreams take place? Is home the place where when the music stops you can just start it back up again? What is home?

When I’m really feeling lost I usually end up thinking about something Joseph Campbell has already said. In his work with myths he identified the major events in a hero’s journey. Two of those events help us define home: (1) The Call to Adventure and (2) The Hero’s Return.

The Call to Adventure

“[D]estiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown.” Joseph Campbell from p. 48 The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The hero must, to fulfill his destiny, leave the society he knows and loves. The trip may be as subtle as sleep such as the case of Rip Van Winkle or as epic as Ulysses’ trip in the Odyssey, spanning the world, known and unknown. Either way, the hero leaves.

From the hero’s journey we learn we need not feel guilty about leaving. We can be comfortable that the leaving has a chance to free us to fulfill our destiny. Home, therefore, is not a place where we must always remain. We can step outside our comfort zones and experience other worlds and lives without guilt.

The Hero’s Return

“The full round, the norm of the monomyth, requires that the hero shall begin the labor of bringing the runes of wisdom, the Golden Fleece, or his sleeping princess back into the kingdom of humanity, where the boon may be redound to the renewing of the community, the notion, the planet, or the ten thousand worlds.” Joseph Campbell from p. 167 The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The true hero must eventually return home. The journey is not complete until the hero brings something: new energy, new knowledge, new life, new hope, back to humanity and back to the friends and family he left.

A hero, therefore, has a home and an obligation to home which outlasts the adventure and even becomes to the benefactor of the adventure, eventually, even if the hero never anticipated the adventure’s result.

Stories and Home

In the stories we read we can look for this pattern. Are our heroes returning home in their adventures? What are they bringing back to their homes when they return? While we read we can look for the symbolism of the return gift and try to decipher its secondary meaning.

In our lives we should do the same. We should recognize leaving home creates the opportunity for adventure. Leaving the safety and security of the known for the unknown allows us to grow, ourselves, but it also gives us the opportunity to fulfill our obligation to our home by bringing back the boon of our adventure. The stories we live, of course, become the stories we tell. So we must be careful to carry out the hero’s task in our lives.

Conclusion

No matter how you define home, and there are many ways to do it, make sure you spend some time defining home so you know where your adventure must end. Every adventure we take has a chance to redefine home for us because we just might leave home without any indication who we’ll help when we get back.

I’d argue, absent a physical journey, reading can be our adventure. It can take us to new places. If Rip Van Winkle can be transported to a new world in his sleep, then a book can take as far if not farther. We can experience new ways of thinking, mythical creatures, and our own inner demons. As we read we should read with a sense of adventure and a sense of the hero’s goal: to bring something back to the people we left behind when we undertook the adventure. We should, from our reading and our travel, bring something back home that will help us all to live.

Some rights reserved by goingslo.

A Reader’s First Trip to New York

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

At the risk of sounding like a hick, I admit I’m not what you’d call a big city guy. I prefer the quaint, might be a nicer way to put it. I do, however, love new experiences. Alicia and I regularly travel for work and pleasure. This past weekend I went to New York City for a party. It was my first visit.

I knew my time was limited so I picked my priorities thus: (1) Book of Mormon; (2) The Strand Bookstore; (3) Peter Luger’s Steakhouse. By starting early each day we squeezed much more into our four days. We managed two more bookstores, the New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, and The Museum of Modern Art. Of course, to get there we used the subway system which, is in my mind, a national treasure.

In no particular order here is four days in New York as seen by a Texan, first time visitor, and reader:

The Airport

I am happy to report that airports still have Hudson News stores and books are still the best pre-flight and in-flight entertainment for your money. Reading while you wait is fashionable and I would even say expected in airports. I worked on American Rust by Philipp Meyer, pre-flight, and during the flight I listened to the final audiobook in the Hunger Games trilogy while I snoozed.

Books still work best because they aren’t electronic devices that have to be turned on and off before takeoff and landing. During preparation for takeoff and landing I stowed my iPad and read a plain old paperback.

I am happy to report the state of reading on planes is strong.

The New York Public Library

Libraries are being hit hard across the world by funding cuts. So the starting point in understanding the New York Public Library system is imaging how you might serve eight million people anything. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

There is no real way to visit all the sub-structures of the library without devoting more than four days to the adventure. We did, however, make it by the historic location that hosted an exhibit entitled “Shelley’s Ghost,” the Schwarzman Building.

The trip was worthwhile for the architecture alone. The special exhibits, most available free of charge, are worth spending time on. In particular, the Shelley exhibit gave a good history of Shelley as well as sources to learn more. Speakers lined up throughout the week would talk on various subjects related to Shelley, however, time would not permit us more than a walk through of the exhibit.

Alicia found a neat necklace in the gift shop which is engraved to read: “Love should be a tree whose roots are deep in the earth, but whose branches extend into heaven.” -Bertrand Russel

The Strand Bookstore

Four floors. Eighteen miles of books. This is mecca for readers. If you collect books the third floor is the rare book room. If you prefer literary non-fiction, check the basement. In between is the most awesome display of books I have ever seen.

Tables tout special selections. A special section is reserved for “real” books priced less than Kindle titles.

I think this store is an example of the past and future for bookstores. Bookstores like this have character. This one, around since 1927, will find its niche. The fate of others is less certain, but maybe that’s because they try to compete with Amazon at their level. Amazon does what they do very efficiently. I’d like to think that a smal shop with a personality could survive, but that may be naive.

I picked up about ten books as I browsed the shelves and displays.

Peter Luger’s Steakhouse

Alert! Vegans stop reading now and resume at the next heading. I’m sorry, but I love steak and a reader has to eat, right?

I don’t have much to say here except that I haven’t paid for a meal with cash in several years, but Luger’s only takes cash. We savored the meat, left to stand on its own in terms of flavor with very little, if any seasonings used.

We brought the giant porterhouse bone home for Eggers by using a combination of a duct taped doggie bag and the hotel freezer. He found the bone quite pleasing. He devoured it completely in two hours.

Book of Mormon

Set aside your nature if you’re easily offended or don’t go.

I am not easily offended and I loved it. I call it part South Park, part Lion King, part Bertrand Russell. You’ll love this play about organized religion’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Bible and the Book of Mormon are books, so that’s how I defend this as a “book-ish” activity. It was my first Broadway show and I don’t regret the choice at all.

The Subway

No reader’s survey of New York would be complete without a section devoted to the subway. Like a temporary prisoner in a packed cell you ride. If you have a book, though, the entire experience changes and you have an excuse to avoid eye contact with everyone on board and just get lost for the few minutes until you get off.

A Few Asides

If I had more time I would have done something to explore The Great Gatsby in New York. There’s always next time.

Central Park is an outdoor reader’s dream. We watched the dogs play in the park and had a coffee one morning. If I lived in New York I would go daily.

The only thing more common than coffee shops in New York are taxi cabs. There are shops and cafes galore. All great places to read and sip.

Newspaper stands are alive and well in New York, although, I don’t see how. They must be impacted by electronic media, but you can still find one on most streets.

The New York Book Haul

Between Hell’s Kitchen flea market, the smaller bookstores, the New York Library gift shop, and The Strand Bookstore my total New York book haul was:

1. Bartelby The Scrivener, Herman Melville.
2. The Complete Plays of Sophocles, Edited with an Introduction,  Moses Hadas.
3. Aristotle’s Poetics with an introductory essay, Francis Fergusson.
4. The Curtain, An Essay in Seven Parts, Milan Kundera.
5. Roland Barthes, Mythologies.
6. On the Nature of Things, Lucretius, Translated by Frank O. Copley.
7. Kafka Americana,Jonathan Lethem and Carter Scholz.
8. The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett.
9. Tintin and the Secret of Literature, McCarthy.
10. Men of Art, Thomas Craven.
11. Modern Short Stories, The Uses of Imagination, Third Edition, Edited by Arthur Mizener.

The bookstores were crowded in New York. I credit the educated population of New York for making me believe there is a place for books in the city.

All photos by Alicia.