These books may not appear to have anything in common, but they are all on my list of “Reading in Place Books.” There’s a particular thrill that comes from reading, or more likely, re-reading, a book in the location that it describes. Anne Fadiman refers to it is You-Are-There-Reading in her book, Ex Libris. Since I had always practiced this kind of reading, too, I was happy to discover that it’s a pleasure enjoyed by many.
E. B. White’s essay, Here is New York, has long been a favorite because it so completely captures the spirit that gives New York its special character, even though it was originally published in 1949, long before jet planes, cell phones, ubiquitous Starbucks storefronts, and the rise and fall of the World Trade Center. Consider the opening sentence, “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” Or this, “New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance, bringing to a single compact arena the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader, and the merchant.” He might have been talking about A-Rod, Al Sharpton, Donald Trump, Bernie Madoff, or countless others in today’s world. Although many of the details of New York in 1949 have altered or disappeared altogether, happily quite a few remain unchanged, although others, sadly in some cases, have altered too little.
Jane Austen spent several years of her life in Bath, and set two of her novels there, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. The latter is my personal favorite, and re-reading parts of Persuasion in my hotel room after having spent the day walking along the Circus and the Crescent, admiring the Georgian houses, visiting the ancient Roman baths, and seeing the Assembly Rooms that Anne Eliot, Captain Wentworth and Jane herself visited, made the story come alive in a manner that armchair reading just cannot duplicate.
Reading James Joyce’s Dubliners (far more accessible than Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake) while in Dublin made me feel less like a tourist and more like a native, if only for a few hours. I first visited Dublin in 1980, and at that time, the city was still very much the same as in Joyce’s works, gritty and, for the most part, poor. When revisiting Dublin in 2006, my experience of the city was completely changed from that earlier time, and so, too, my experience of the stories while re-reading the book was completely changed.
If you’ve never tried reading in place, I suggest that when you’re choosing books to carry the next time you travel, try selecting a book set in the location you’re visiting. I guarantee that your enjoyment of both the book and the place will be enhanced!