Travel By Book

“There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away...”

--Emily Dickinson

Some people are globetrotters; other of us prefer to do our traveling while in an armchair, curled up in bed, or by the swimming pool. Wherever you read, there are various ways to enjoy what is often called virtual adventures: travel guides, lavishly illustrated coffee table books, and novels set in the part of the world you wish to visit. For a work of fiction to transport you to another place, the setting needs to be so vivid as to be another character. A book set in what could be Anytown, USA may have many merits, but it does not give you more than a generic setting.  I have two favorites, one old, one contemporary, which I would like to share with you.

(map showing location of Egdon Heath in Hardy’s imaginary Wessex)

Egdon Heath, so meticulous described in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, may be set in his imaginary Wessex but has its roots in real places. It is an amalgamation of the gorse heath at Upper Bockhampton, Dorset, where Hardy was born, and several others nearby. Fictitious it may be, but the sense of place, of those who embrace the heath and those who reject it, is palpable. As Hardy writes in the first chapter, “The great inviolate place had an ancient permanence which the sea cannot claim." Those who understand their place in nature are home there; those who reject it, wish to flee it.

The modern novel, Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett, takes us to Lagos, Nigeria. It is a vast, sprawling city. With the help of Lagos’ office website (and my innate love of statistics combined with a tendency towards erratic arithmetic) I think that the city covers about 450 square miles, has a population over 16,000,000, and density of about 20,000 people per square mile. Hundreds of little towns and villages, each with its own history and traditions, have been absorbed by vast urban growth.  If I had not already read Blackass, I would wonder how Barrett could possibly draw a picture of such a large, varied city. By focusing on one character and the universal, propelling force of Lagos - the desire to move upwards in prestige, riches, and social standing - he captures the essence of the city.

The main character, a young black Nigerian, wakes up one morning to discover he is white--with red hair and green eyes. Slipping out his bedroom window as he has no idea what would happen if his family saw him with his new appearance, he sets off on a job interview. In this new guise, he sees his home city – which he thought he knew so well – anew.

There are plenty more novels that pull you into another place, so many that there are numerous lists on the internet to lead you to other regions of our immense and fascinating world.

"22 Ambassadors Recommend the One Book to Read Before Visiting Their Country"

"Locating the Books With the Strongest Sense of Place"

"The 69 Greatest Fiction Travel Books of All Time"

"Travel Fiction: Eight Books That Make Us Want to Travel"

- Mary Elizabeth, Hickory Corner Branch


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