Using Literature As A Travel Guide: Interesting Books To Read

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If you’re just a regular tourist, you’ll probably be satisfied with taking a few photos at the great landmarks of the cities you visit, or learning about a few historical facts and maybe taking some notes in the meantime. However, if you are indeed a traveler and an explorer, you may aspire to a fuller experience. We have a fresh suggestion for you! If you like reading and travelling, why not combine the two?

Many authors created their stories as reflections upon certain towns: they wrote down their thoughts and emotions, often mixing real life with fiction. They have created powerful literature by pointing out the connection between people and cities. Their impressions of different cities might not be yours as well, but they will motivate you to observe the act of travelling in a deeper sense, not limiting your visit just to exploring a city’s architecture or art, but also discovering the story that hides within. Here are five travel destinations and reading recommendations we have prepared for you:

Dublin

This Irish city simply had to be on our list, mainly because of its great literary figure, James Joyce. For this occasion, we recommend to you his collection of short stories, titled Dubliners (read online for free), and of course his novel Ulysses (read online for free). Joyce’s short stories deal with intense human situations that end with some sort of epiphany, be it a moral, social or spiritual one. What connects all of these stories is the feeling of paralysis, or the sense that life that consists only of connected steps that lead towards death. This kind of deep fear leads to being frozen in time, completely helpless and insignificant, which causes many frustrations. Joyce called his collection of stories a chapter of the moral history of Ireland and invited his fellow countrymen to look deep inside themselves and face the truth about who they actually are. It is particularly interesting to see how Joyce focuses on ordinary people and their connection to the city. His stories raise awareness about individuals and how exactly every single person has unique thoughts and issues. When you gaze upon a crowded city square, you might wonder what all those lives are actually about. The relationship between Dublin and its citizens is strong, as they live their lives emotionally attached to certain landmarks. Every city has something that is characteristic for its people: reading through these stories will help you give a human face to Dublin. All that is in literature comes from life experience and imagination. So, for example – in the story An Encounter, you can read about boys and their mischief and what ferry boats on the river Liffey meant to them, or why the Pigeon house was important. In the story titled Araby, you learn that the title is actually the name of a great hall in Dublin, in which a charity fair was held. Reading through the plot of the story, you can get a sense of what was the atmosphere in the city during these days and especially in North Richmond Street – which is the focus. In the story The Dead, you can read about life in a dark, gaunt house on Usher’s Island, and discover Thomas Moore’s Irish melodies and what kind of life existed in the fancy tavern called The Gresham (the tavern is open today, too!) Your travel experience will place you uniquely in contact with the magic of fiction and real 21st century Dublin, making you as a traveler a point where the history of the city merges with your individual impressions. Reading these stories can be educational, too: for example, you can learn a lot about Irish politics, especially Charles Parnell. The satiric tone Joyce uses does not undermine historical facts. From literature spiced with anecdotes to real knowledge that can be experienced through travelling – it can hardly get better than that!

With over one thousand pages, Ulysses depicts only one day – the 16th of June 1904. It is a great story of three Dubliners, with many digressions and a dominant style of stream of consciousness. Streets, pubs, and brothels are all depicted in the novel. Maybe one of the best known locations from the novel is the famous Tower from the opening dialogue between Buck Mulligan and Stephen. Today, this tower is known as James Joyce’s Tower, and it attracts many tourists, especially writers, who see it as a place of pilgrimage for modern literature. Explore Dublin as you take the advice from the story An Encounter:

But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad.

Istanbul

A great historical landmark, full of interesting stories, amazing art, and a unique culture, Istanbul is a city worth seeing. We recommend that you read Istanbul: Memoirs and the City, written by a Nobel Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk. This book represents the author’s memoirs, so it is non-fiction literature. These extremely intimate and personal writings show the author’s connection to his city, from his earliest years through his adolescence and later life, revealing the conflicts he experienced with himself, with his family, and with his Istanbul, while suffering from depression. This book shows how our hometown contributes to the shaping of our identities. That is why some people, so prone to traveling the world – often declare themselves as cosmopolitans, as they have a broader sense of identity, belonging to the world. Pamuk never felt this way, nor did he migrate as other authors have done. He explains his relationship to Istanbul:

My imagination, however, requires that I stay in the same city, on the same street, in the same house, gazing at the same view. Istanbul’s fate is my fate. I am attached to this city because it has made me who I am.

Pamuk admits what his city has meant to him and what is his perception of it: he has always thought of it as the city of ruins with a particular end-of-empire melancholy. This melancholy (Turkish word hüzün) is a huge part of the author’s character, and is important for understanding the true spirit of the city. The whole book revolves around it, and there is a special chapter dedicated entirely to this notion. Reading through this touching book, you will learn more about the yalis—splendid waterside mansions built by the great Ottoman families during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; you will learn about the clash of the West and East and how it has affected the city; you will learn about the destruction of the Pashas’ Mansions and the origin of this name (from the days of the reformist westernizing sultans of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Selim III and Mahmud II). You will learn how the city was connected in the 1950s, where the bus went when it left Taksim Square and how it felt to drive by the open Bosphorus. Besides that, Pamuk offers many literary references to inspire your literary research (such as the impressions of the French novelist Gustave Flaubert, who was amazed by the city, or the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy, who wrote his verses looking at the beauty of Bosphorus, but also references to less known Turkish authors). Especially interesting is the chapter where Pamuk shows pieces of writings from Istanbul’s columnists over the last 130 years. Through them, you can see how the problems of the city changed and evolved (from citizens being fed up with streets getting flooded with every rain, to criticizing fireworks and discussing better ways to spend the public’s money – on educating children, for example, or feeding the poor). This is just a small fragment of the beauty of Istanbul you can find here. This book has an intimate, confessional tone – as it truly is a confession, and not just the author’s confession, but also the city’s. This book is far more useful for understanding Istanbul deeply than any other travel guide, since it offers a special city’s history, with a human face.

Alexandria

Alexandria: a beautiful city where many ancient civilizations met and intertwined. If you are eager to explore this city and its hidden story, no better way to do it than reading Lawrence Durrells’ four amazing novels collected under the title The Alexandrian Quartet! The events and characters are set in Alexandria, before and during World War II. It is a unique opportunity for you, as a reader, to explore the city’s actual historical facts that are, through all four novels, complemented by vivid stories. Throughout his four novels (titled Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea), Durrell writes about pretty much the same events, but from the highly individual perspectives of his characters. With this treatment, the great topic of the relativity of truth stands as one of the most interesting questions here. The city of Alexandria is in the center of all four novels, being a unique character itself, connecting all of the stories. The city changes and grows with time, and the relationship that people have with it is somewhat mystical. The city is implied here as a mother to all the characters, and the connection with its citizens is not passive at all, but instead very human and alive. What Alexandria actually is can be read from different perspectives in the novel, including the narrator’s – a historian named Darley. We can see that the face of the city tends to change, that it is mysterious and multicultural. Balthazar sees his city through the lenses of a writer – like a mirage, with love in the focus. Clea calls it an old reptile and a princess and a whore. Durrell manages to capture the true identity of the city, influenced by many cultures on the Mediterranean:

Fragments of every language – Armenian, Greek, Amharic, Moroccan Arabic; Jews from Asia Minor, Pontus, Georgia; mothers born in Greek settlements on the Black Sea; communities cut down like the branches of trees, lacking a parent body, dreaming of Eden. These are the poor quarters of the city; they bear no resemblance to those lively streets built and decorated by foreigners where the brokers sit and sip their morning papers.

Alexandria is a place where the past and present intersect. You will be drawn into the streets of the city as you read about its political and erotic worlds – about the great thinker Plotin and Alexander the Great, about Anthony and Cleopatra. By interacting with people (especially the women in the novel), one character gets to know the essence of Alexandria better; by knowing the city better, one knows himself better. This book will most certainly make your visit more exciting and the plasticity of the descriptions will make you feel like you’re breathing the city’s dusty air.

Florence

If you’re an art lover, you cannot miss visiting the cradle of the Renaissance, beautiful Florence! For a unique literary travel guide, we recommend that you read The Agony and the Ecstasy, a biographical novel about Michelangelo, written by Irving Stone. After thoroughly studying biographies written about Michelangelo, Stone wanted to contribute his own version of the story, by giving his personal impression of who this great Italian artist actually was. This novel is a great starting point for exploring Renaissance Florence, ruled by the family of the Medici. Through a very pleasant read, you will get to know the history of Michelangelo’s many art works: the great statue of David, Pieta, the tombs he sculpted for the Pope, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and many more. Knowing the story that is in the background – meaning Michelangelo’s true artistic aspirations, as well as the historical context of the commissions he was receiving – will make your visit to Florence a unique experience. For example, did you know that Michelangelo hated painting? He was an extraordinary artist in many fields (sculptor, painter, poet, even an architect, for a short time), but he felt his true identity lay in his relationship with stone. Sculpting was something he loved to do, and he didn’t want to waste much of his time on other art forms. The book offers many historical facts (the political situation in Florence at the time, the riots, the rivalry between artists, especially Leonardo and Michelangelo, the change in the religious climate and the rise of the priest Savonarola, the artists who were gathered around the workshop of Ghirlandaio, the history of the noble and highly reputed families in Florence, about different guilds that existed and social status, etc.). There is also information about everyday life. Here’s just a piece of the picture of the city from the novel:

Wealthy Florence was supplied with exotic foods from all over the world: aloes, zedoary, cardamom, thyme, marjoram, mush­ rooms and truffles, powdered nuts, galinga.

By reading this captivating novel, you will simply soak in Renaissance Florence and fall in love with its amazing art.

London

London is one of the most popular tourist destinations, with its amazing architecture and landmarks, to name a few: the Tower of London, Big Ben, London Eye, Buckingham palace, Tower Bridge, and many museums and theatres. For a more creative and fuller experience of the city, we recommend that you mix fiction with the streets of London and read Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway (read online for free). In this novel, you will read about London after World War I and how the city played a complementary role in coping with reality for one particular character – Clarissa Dalloway. As was the case in the previously mentioned novels, the connection between the city and the fictional character (Mrs. Dalloway) is strong and comforting. The city has its part in the rituals and small psychological mechanisms of the individual trying to live a life. In the focus of the story is Clarissa Dalloway, a woman from the upper class who is preparing to host a party. Many individual stories overlap in the novel, making us, as readers, realize that our identities are made by our perceptions and the perceptions of others. The city of London is also present as one part of Mrs. Dalloway’s identity: it is not merely a place she lives in, but in a more perplexed way – London and the social rules which its streets guard affect her greatly. You can explore London through the eyes of this fictional character: by going down Bond Street or visiting the Dean’s Yard, Westminster Abbey. You can stroll down College Street, or Barton Street; or walk down to St. James’s Park, which was a regular place for Mrs. Dalloway and her introspections:

So she would still find herself arguing in St. James’s Park, still making out that she had been right — and she had too — not to marry him. For in marriage a little licence, a little independence there must be between people living together day in day out in the same house; which Richard gave her, and she him.

The connection between people and their cities is strong and often intimate. It is interesting to read how these five cities echoed in the works of different authors, as you may conclude that though humans created all these spaces, the spaces ended up shaping them. Combine your love for reading with your love of travelling, and I promise you’ll have an unforgettable experience, connecting the dots between fiction, real life, history, memories that belonged to someone else, and yourself.

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