Haiti isn’t exactly the place I’d recommend for a book club trip, but it’s certainly a place about which book clubs are interested in reading. My friend Patty, a fellow book clubber, is off to Haiti on a service trip to assist in a Haitian orphanage next month. She’s among hundreds of Americans who travel to Haiti to work in a multitude of ways to improve conditions there. Of course, literature is one way to understand the complex history, politics and culture of Haiti for those who go there and for those who simply wish to understand more about the seemingly unending problems of this country that is only 600 miles from the coast of Florida.
I, too, was in Haiti (thankfully before the earthquake) and found Edwidge Danticat’s After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti books fascinating to read while I was visiting there, particularly around Jacmel. Also check out Danticat’s beautiful writing about the Haitian experience in Breath, Eyes, Memory and Krik? Krak!
In addition, our book club read All Souls Rising by Madison Smartt Bell, which is a somewhat horrific, but excellent novel of the Haitian slave rebellion and was a National Book Award finalist. It’s part of Bell’s trilogy of novels about the Haitian revolution of 1791–1803, that includes All Soul’s Rising, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That the Builder Refused. Bell also wrote a biography of the central figure of the rebellion, François Dominique Toussaint Louverture.
Our book club also read Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World about less than redressing the inequalities of medical service to the desperately poor. Also recommended: Paul Farmer’s book, The Uses of Haiti.
The great travel writer Pico Iyer wrote an essay for Salon.com many years ago that is one of the best discussions about why we travel that I’ve seen. http://www.salon.com/travel/feature/2000/03/18/why
He says, “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And, we travel, in essence to become young fools again—to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”
It strikes me that you could substitute the word “read” for travel in that paragraph and the meaning would be the same. When we “escape with a good book,” we read to lose ourselves and sometimes find ourselves along the way just like someone who is wandering the streets and alleyways of a foreign country. Most of us can’t live the life of a travel writer, a vagabond, or an independently wealthy aristocrat on the grand tour of Europe ala the characters that populate the works of Edith Wharton or Henry James. But we can go there in a book.
However, the best of all worlds is to combine the two. Ever since I was in grade school, I loved to read about the places we were going on family vacations. Reading Esther Forbes’s “Johnny Tremain” before a trip to Boston made the visit come alive for me. Ditto for Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings,” which I read with my children before a trip to Boston where we waddled across the street to the Public Garden following the path of Mack, Jack, Kack, Quack and the other ducklings.
That might be the best part—becoming young fools again.
Travel and reading. They go together like cherry pie and ice cream….
Back in May, Ann Patchett, author of book club favorites such as Bel Canto, Patron Saint of Liars, and Truth and Beauty, wrote a great travel article for The New York Times about her love of Petoskey, Michigan, and in particular a bookstore there called McLean & Eakin Booksellers. She says that, while some people center their travel around baseball stadiums, museums or Civil War battle grounds, for her the focal point of travel is the independent bookstore.
Her article, “As American as Cherry Pie,” will resonate with book lovers, particularly when she says, “It is just so thrilling to be around people who read, people who will pull a book off the shelf and say, ‘This is the one you want.’ People who want to know what I’m reading and will tell me what they’re reading so that while we talk, stacks of books begin to form around us. It’s my own personal idea of heaven.” Check out the full article
I’m a member of two book clubs. Both groups have been together for years. We’ve bonded with Jane Austen, argued about Anna Karenina and struggled down The Road with Cormac McCarthy. We’ve praised and panned books, hosted their authors at our meetings and attended readings in bookstores. We’ve analyzed authors’ possibly dysfunctional origins (seriously, how can you look at the world that way?), literary styles, symbolism and deep meaning of the books we’ve read. Okay, not all the time.
I admit that our meetings have not always been devoted to highbrow literary discussion. We’ve eaten acres of dessert and consumed vineyards of wine. Our children, who were upstairs trying to sleep during these meetings, will attest to the noise level. In addition to our love of literature and reading, we’ve shared our lives—children, marriages and relationships, aging parents. And now we’re adding another chapter—travel.
One group in particular has talked for years about how much fun it would be to actually see a place that we’ve read about. “We should all go there…for our 30th birthdays, for our 40th birthdays…. This year we finally did it. We hopped on a plane from Minneapolis to Chicago, the scene of several of the books we’ve read, in particular Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City. More about that wonderful trip later.
The more I tell people about our trip, the more I hear about how their book clubs, too, have started to travel together—both close-to-home “field trips” and longer, more exotic excursions. There seems to be a trend here. So, this blog will explore the places where literature and travel intersect, how to escape with a good book and understand the places we travel, with or without a book group, through the eyes of authors who have gone there before us.
Let’s get out of the living room and hit the road.
Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.