Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Travel books

I don't see the point of carrying travel guides around in 2010. Even when their information on ticket prices, visa requirements and accommodation choices isn't hopelessly out-of-date or insufficient, this stuff can all easily be found online anyway. And they rarely tell you the really useful stuff, like days you can get into attractions for free or the best places to steal Wi-Fi.

Even if you don't have internet access (I probably wouldn't if my income didn't depend on it), most of the places I've stayed have local Rough Guides and Lonely Planets lying around in all languages except Welsh, making carrying your own even more redundant. The space those thick tomes consume in your suitcase would be much better spent housing some squashed toilet rolls or more socks. (Sometimes these blogs mainly serve as mental aids for my shopping lists).

I usually don't carry any books at all in my fastidiously optimised luggage (one rucksack plus one laptop bag, if you were wondering - described by one suspicious Israeli security officer as "where's your luggage?") But I have plenty of comics on my laptop, and for non-illustrated literature I find audiobooks a lot more pleasant and convenient.

Why sit unsociably in a corner reading a dog-eared copy of The Alchemist you've been lugging across Europe for three months, when you can stroll along a river listening to the same story narrated by the warm, fatherly tones of Jeremy Irons? Audiobooks are also really useful when travelling at night, when nonaudiobooks (as I call them) are rendered invisible. Though this does bring the frequent problem, for me at least, of falling asleep for a few chapters and waking up to discover 50 years have passed and they're all dead. And that some events have transpired in the novel too. And then I got off the bus, ahh.

Books to inspire travel

Just as wandering aimlessly around significant historical sites can leave you blank, scared and confused without a tour guide to explain the mind-boggling point-n-click adventure that is the Egyptian journey to the afterlife, sometimes having a story filled with contemporary characters can help you better appreciate bygone times.

This story doesn't even have to be true or entirely free of anachronisms either, though something like Braveheart or The Book of Mormon is probably pushing artistic license a little too far (I haven't seen/read either of these, but am assuming correctly that they are of no value, historical or otherwise). Here are just a few books I've read over the years (or not) that have helped me appreciate places more, and look forward to paying them a visit.

Alan Moore's From Hell

Alan Moore's greatest work, which is really saying something, From Hell is, to tastelessly simplify things, historical fiction about the Whitechapel murders. But it goes a Hell of a lot deeper than a simple murder mystery, as Moore leaves no stone of Victorian London unturned.

One of the best chapters is a day-long coach tour of significant landmarks taken by the slightly insane William Gull and his coach driver, where Moore really goes overboard on layering occult symbolism and Masonic rituals onto London's most famous and unappreciated landmarks alike, with a convincing attention to detail that makes David Icke's clumsy attempts to link the Tower of London's gargoyles with Illuminati bloodlines seem like spotting Jesus in a dog's arse.

It's mostly made up for cosmic effect, but it's this fascinating tour through the sinister side of London that ignited my love of psychogeography, and is probably squarely to blame for my refusal to take convenient flights in favour of getting a real 'feel' for the land. Thanks, Moore. At least I have my audiobooks to keep me company on those day-long bus rides.

I'd love to take this 'From Hell tour' myself if I have a free day in London. Some American did it on buses, so it seems 21st century congestion hasn't destroyed urban exploration in London completely, even if a few of the landmarks featured are no longer standing.

Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth

I don't normally read historical fiction or intimidatingly large books, but a girl I was obsessed with a few years ago told me The Pillars of the Earth was her favourite book, so naturally I ploughed through it as quickly as possible.

The story's pretty good, even if the storytelling itself is pretty bland, and without this book's commendably detailed account of the effort and willpower it takes to construct cathedrals across several generations, I don't think I'd have developed an appreciation for these glorious monuments as anything more than attractive buildings pointlessly dedicated to a fictional deity. But I guess for many people, the Bible is a pretty great travel guide too - certainly for many of the people I met in Jerusalem, who braved the depressing security checks and border walls of Bethlehem just to see the humble site of Our Lord's imaginary birth.

I was reminded of Pillars a lot in Florence, too. The book's horny and repetitive sequel, World Without End, is rubbish.

Wilbur Smith's River God

I haven't actually read River God, and I'm not planning to, unless I get desperate. I don't think I'd like it very much.

Still, being about Ancient Egypt, it was the only thing I could find on the bookshelf on my last night in Jerusalem that seemed in any way appealing to steal. I was getting pretty low on AAA batteries for my audiobook player (that's what they're called, right?) and you never know when you might have to go old-school. Luckily my batteries held out, and the only parts of The Alchemist Disc 2 that I missed through naps seemed to be relatively inconsequential.

I don't feel guilty about stealing from hostels. I left my good raincoat in Venice, so in the grander scheme of things, hostels still owe me about £8. But every time I see Smith's embossed name on the creased spine in my laptop bag, holding together 664 pages of valuable room, I look forward to the day several years down the line when we can finally part ways. Maybe if I meet a girl who claims this boring-sounding book is her favourite, I'll have a reason to speed through it and I'll finally have more room for socks and squashed toilet rolls.

Update: I've now swapped the probably-rubbish River God for P. G. Wodehouse's The Inimitable Jeeves, which I've read before and has nothing whatsoever to do with travel, but is much better and more lightweight.

Lynsey May-style final thought: Have you ever been inspired to visit a place by reading a non-travel book about it?

Novel progress: 26,312 words (53%)

1 comment:

  1. I want to visit Peru because of all of the millions of pages of copy I had to write about it at work. Which is hideous and great all together.