The best way to prepare for any destination is by first learning. Many of our initial steps include reaching for a copy of the latest guidebook or scouring the internet for advice. This is a common instinct to have. I do it. All of the time. There’s just something about flipping through those glossy pages and living the exact moment your wanderlust cements into reality. It’s a wonderful feeling.
And for the most part, these traditional guides do the job. But how useful can these conventional guides be? After all, a place’s particularities go much deeper than where to eat, what to see, and where to sleep.
A big part of my preparations for a trip includes researching a place’s characteristics. I’m interested in the people, the places, the culture. More specifically, I’m interested in folk tales, superstitions, the significance of the environment, what locals eat, the brand of toothpaste they prefer. Those odd things. For this reason, I turn to literature. They are a fantastic source for discovering those subtleties of places—all of the things ordinary guide books skim through or completely skip over. Literature often humanizes the destination rather than present them as a journey’s end. This is important to me as a traveler, writer, and individual.
I’m not suggesting you forgo travel guides as reading material for your next adventure. They are still useful. Where else can you get dining etiquette tips or locations for the best exchange rate? I’m merely hoping you consider the following reasons why literature as guide books are a great supplement to the conventional ones.
Literature as guidebooks …
Establishes an intimacy with your destination
Reading a good book is often a form of traveling itself. When you’re immersed in sensory details of a character or author it feels as if you’re discovering your destination on an intimate level even before you even arrive. Having this previous awareness of a place makes the physical connections you make that much more important and memorable.
Encourages a better understanding of the culture
Many of those traveling do so in a single breath. Time flies and sometimes there isn’t enough time to make proper connections with locals. Learning about culture through a travel guide’s objective voice is sometimes not enough. This is where literature can fill in the gaps. Reading how a custom is applied in real life (via the fictional world) promotes a better comprehension.
Provides Historical Backdrop
Unconsciously learn about the history through the details in literature. You won’t even realize you’re getting a history lesson.
Strengthens visual experience through sense of place
Travel guides have photos; works of literature rely on words to illustrate scenery. The images you’ll conjure in your imagination will help form a more personal connection to the actual landscape when you finally see them. This combination creates a lasting impression. You may also find that the way an author has described a place, is exactly how you might describe it.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes about Rome from Goethe’s Italian Journey:
Nothing, above all, is comparable to the new life that a reflective person experiences when he observes a new country. Though I am still always myself, I believe I have been changed to the very marrow of my bones. – Goethe