Laurie has a great post over at BlogHer today about books and the places they can take you--both metaphorically and physically. Her piece, in turn, was inspired by Sandra Foyt's How to Plan A Read Across America Road Trip. Basically, both entries are about the places reading books inspires one to go, or at least to dream about visiting.
Since I discovered this idea I've been thinking of cities and regions I love that have amazing literary history, that have inspired me to seek out the voices writing about them - New Orleans, San Francisco, New York, London (I'm an Austen fan - I could go for a country tour, no problem.) Hemingway made me see and taste Europe almost like I was there, and when I go back, I should probably bring A Moveable Feast for a re-read.
Like Laurie, I'm enamored with the idea. Maybe a trip to Ireland would be just the thing to finally get me to read James Joyce? Again like Laurie, nothing has made me want to see Spain like Hemingway (in my case, The Sun Also Rises). I'd even be willing to re-read Anna Karenina (well, maybe), if I could do it in Russia.
Imagine re-creating Humbert and Lo's American adventure while reading along with Lolita! Or taking a slow drive from Oklahoma to California with The Grapes of Wrath? Anne Rice put New Orleans in my imagination forever, but I'd also love to see Faulkner's Mississippi and Zora Neale Hurston's Alabama.
The hallmark of a good book, for me, has always had to do with how I react to the characters. Weak plot points are not an issue if the characters can make me love them (or hate them, or pity them, or lust after them). But in the best books (and not just books, but songs, movies, etc.) location serves as a character or characters all its own. Would To Kill a Mockingbird have worked set on the Midwest? What about a Southern Sometimes a Great Notion? Could a tree have grown in Detriot instead of Brooklyn? I think not. The places in which these books are set are not just backdrops--they are essentials. The stories don't work without them.
One of the truly great things about reading books in which the location is as compelling as the characters is the way it makes you consider places you otherwise wouldn't--not always positively. I hadn't given a whole lot of thought to Newfoundland before I read The Shipping News, and Ami McKay's The Birth House made me think about Nova Scotia in a way I certainly hadn't before. While driving through Kansas a couple of years ago, my mind often returned to In Cold Blood. Europe has long been at the top of my must-see list, but The Poisonwood Bible absolutely made me want to go to Africa.
Books also help me return to the places I do know. I picked up Marion Winik's Above Us Only Sky for the first time not because it looked particularly interesting (though it turned out to be fabulous), but because the essays are set in Austin. Some of my favorite books are set in Oregon: Katherine Dunn's Geek Love; Ken Kesey's books; and of course Beverly Cleary!
Given that I'm about to move across the country, again, to a place about which I know very little, I guess now would be a good time to find some books to guide me. Anybody have a favorite set in Northern Virginia?
And what about you? What books take you places? Where would you like to make a fiction-inspired visit?