Reading and Travel: Companions of the Imagination

June 29, 2012 — 3 Comments

Certainly, I am not the first to notice the direct correlation between the act of travel and the act of reading. One need only perform a quick web search for quotes about books and travel to find literally hundreds of writers who have written specifically about this connection:

“My grandfather says that’s what books are for,” Ashoke said, using the opportunity to open the volume in his hands. “To travel without moving an inch.”
― Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake

“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.”
― Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life

In fact, there are some quotations by writers about travel where I could replace the word “travel” with “read” in order and still make an interesting valid sentiment:

“We travel (or we read), some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”
― Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 7

“Through travel (or reading) I first became aware of the outside world; it was through travel (or reading)  that I found my own introspective way into becoming a part of it.”
― Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings

While the experience of reading allows readers to imagine places they do not know, the sensory experiences of travel improves their imaginations. For example, a reader who has traveled outdoors in  frigid climates has a more accurate appreciation for Jack London’s To Build a Fire. One could travel on a ferry crossing Lake Michigan or shuttling between the Virgin Islands or cruising up the Bosphorus Strait; the rumble underfoot of a boat engine pulling and out of port, the sensations of crosswinds, and the smell of the diesel combine for a sensory impression, quite literally a “motor memory” ready for recall when one reads about maritime travel.

Perhaps it is the often demanding physical elements of travel that strengthen the link between the tangible experience and a reader’s imagination: the lugging of  personal belongings in suitcases, shopping bags, handbags, backpacks; the laboring over uneven terrains, rural and urban; or the push against a crush of people for transport on a subway, bus, boat, train. The traveler has these physical sensations cognitively recorded as salient memories to be used in imagining how the character(s) march, trudge, slog, plod, trail or trek in, on, or through unfamiliar territory.

The other advantage to travel is the “ah-ha” moment when the reader confronts first-hand the “real setting” of fictional lives. There is a greater understanding of author’s purpose when a reader can place a character within an author’s context, say Dickens’s London, Conrad’s Congo, Tolstoy’s Russia, or any one of Hemingway’s haunts: Paris, Spain, Cuba, South America, Africa. Cathedrals, rose-covered-cottages, pubs, palaces, mosques are better appreciated in their cultural contexts. Similarly, walking the landscape of a historical event that has been recounted in non-fiction allows for a greater comprehension of the significance of a rampart, fort, bastion, jetty or beachhead. One need only add the cacophony of sounds, say the calls from street vendors, the resonance of folk instruments, the chatter of foreign languages combined with the taste of exotic fruits or perfumed sweets in order to complete an immersion in a culture. The reader, standing in the authentic setting of a book, fiction or non-fiction, is connected to the author in a full sensory bond. The well-travelled reader’s imagination can then pluck the strands of travel memory, as if from Dumbledore’s pensive, in creating mental pictures of books already read or books to be read in the future. The traveler cannot help but be a better reader.

There are numerous books written to aid in a traveler who desires this cultural experience.  I have been traveling this past week through Istanbul, Turkey, and by far the most popular book carried by travelers is the Rick Steves’s  Guide to Istanbul, a travel writer who wholeheartedly advocates for a cultural emersion for travelers. On his website, he has a webpage dedicated to “travel as a political act,” which later became the title to his book.

In the introductory paragraph to this webpage, Steves emphasizes the the importance of travel in much the same way that I try to proselytize the importance of reading to my students:

Lessons learned from our travels can better equip us to address and help resolve the challenges facing our world. We travelers are both America’s ambassadors to the world…and the world’s ambassadors to America. Whether you’re a mom, a schoolteacher, a celebrity, a realtor, or a travel writer, it’s wrong to stop paying attention and let others (generally with a vested interest in the situation) make the political decisions for us. Our founding fathers didn’t envision career politicians and professional talking heads doing our political thinking for us. All are welcome in the political discourse that guides this nation. Thoughtful travelers know that we’re all citizens of the world and members of a global family. Spinning from Scotland to Sri Lanka, from Tacoma to Tehran, travelers experience the world like whirling dervishes: We keep one foot planted in our homeland, while acknowledging the diversity of our vast world. We celebrate the abundant and good life we’ve been given and work to help those blessings shower equitably upon all.

Steves’s philosophy of travel is an echo to a great writer from a different century, Samuel Clemens. Clemens was heavily influenced by his trips to Europe and the Middle East (1867-69) before he wrote his greatest contribution to American literature, Huckleberry Finn (1885). One these trips, he wrote a series of travel letters which were later compiled into the popular book The Innocents Abroad. In one letter he wrote:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
-Mark Twain

Readers, get up and pack! Seek out a different world! Improve your imagination and travel, because even the Ancient World’s Augustine of Hippo knew, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”

3 responses to Reading and Travel: Companions of the Imagination

  1. 

    I loved reading this. There is something all the more fascinating about reading a book when you realize and recognize a foreign place within it. I just had such a epiphany last week when I was reading about the History of Crime and infamous criminals in Japan. I stumbled upon a woman who did her crimes in a part of Japan that I probably would never have understood if it wasn’t that that river is the one that I run by everyday.

  2. 

    You touch on the subject of the reading/writing connection. Although I agree that travel stimulates the imagination, when dealing with education–especially among the poor–it’s the connections of writing to reading that is the most fundamental, whether for primary age children, secondary students, or post-secondary young adults. For learners (and that includes life-long learning adults) who do not have the funds for travel, the need to discover topics in the world around them is vital. Is there “neighborhood travel” that might also stimulate writing? How might one encourage writing about the mundane?

  3. 

    Of course. The Bridgewater Village Store, a two minute walk from my home, with its colorful cast of characters could be “Winesburg, Ohio”, 107 years later!
    I also have no idea how people in Southern California understand Ethan Frome’s setting of Starkfield….there is an imaginative advantage to living in a particular locale.
    My favorite book to use to explain the importance of setting is Ezra Jack Keat’s “The Snowy Day”…my high school students love the artwork, and see the beauty of an urban landscape from a young boy’s perspective.
    You make a good point…thanks!

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