Tag Archives: literary travel

A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers' Houses

I just finished reading A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a tour of the homes of writers ranging from Hemingway to Poe to Langston Hughes by writer and English professor Anne TrubekIn this funny and very insightful book, Trubek examines the lure of writers’ homes for readers and for herself.  And a big draw it is; she says there are about seventy-three writers houses open to the public in the U.S. and hundred of thousands of people visit them annually, 60,000 a year to Mark Twain’s house in Hartford alone. But, such pilgrimages aren’t always very satisfying. She says

Writers’ house museums expose the heartbreaking gap between writers and readers. Part of the pull of a writer’s house is the desire to get as close as possible to the precise, generative, “Aha!” But we can never get there….Going to a writer’s house is a fool’s errand. We will never find our favorite characters or admired techniques within these houses; we can’t join Huck on the raft or experience Faulkner’s stream of consciousness. We can only walk through empty rooms full of pitchers and paintings and stoves.”

But A Skeptic’s Guide is entertaining precisely because, for Trubek the houses always come up short, which she describes in a pleasantly un-snarky way.  For example, visitors and tour guides often seem to confuse the idea that a house was where the writer lived and not where the fictional characters like Huck Finn or Jo in Little Women lived.  The furniture, papers and other items in the houses are often not those that belonged to the writer, but are things the curator added willy-nilly.  Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, is decorated as a modern-day show house, computer and all.   Most houses seem to have the same array of merchandise in the gift shop.

I agree with her.  I’ve never really seen the lure of an author’s homes as some way to commune with the departed genius or magically attain the writer’s magic for my own use.  However, I’m fascinated with the sense of place that literature creates.  When I read about Huck Finn, it makes me want to not visit Twain’s Hannibal home but rather to hop in a boat and travel down the Mississippi. For a Yankee like me, it’s exciting to visit the Carolina lowcountry I’ve read about in books such as Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides or The Water is Wide.  I get a better understanding of the real people who live there as well as their history and the geography that has shaped it.

Ultimately, the essence of the writer isn’t in the house, it’s in the words. Trubeck concludes, “[Langston] Hughes knew that …the world of the imagination would offer him more than the city, more than a house.”

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Who Was Abe Lincoln? Lit and History Road Trips for Families

Famed historian David McCullough gave a presentation about his new book, The Greater

Ideas to plan a reading road trip

Journey: Americans in Paris, on Tuesday night in Wayzata, Minnesota, near Minneapolis.  It’s the story of American artists, writers, physicians, politicians and others who traveled to Paris between 1830 and 1900 to further their education and to excel at their work. I highly recommend it to anyone traveling to Paris.

But one of the most interesting parts of the evening was when someone asked McCullough his opinion of Americans’ knowledge of history and the way history is taught in our schools.  That’s a particularly hot topic this week because of Sarah Palin’s rewriting of history and also because the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that American students are less proficient in their nation’s history than in any other subject.  The New York Times said that, according to results of a nationwide test released on Tuesday, most fourth graders were unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure. McCullough’s suggestion:  don’t fault the teachers.  It’s our own responsibility.  Parents,  grandparents, and others must do a better job of showing an interest in history and discussing it with children.

A great way for children to learn a little U.S. colonial history

Family road trips are one of the best ways to do that.  It’s what educators call “placed-based learning” and, it ties in nicely with the idea of inspiring children to read by making stories more vivid and bringing reading to life.  I’m not talking about hard-core history books here, but rather books that are fun to read. For example, read Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain and visit Boston.  Pair Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer with a trip to see the Mississippi River or Twain’s home in Hannibal Missouri.  Read the Little House on the Prairie series and travel to the sites where Laura Ingalls Wilder really lived.  How about Brighty of the Grand Canyon?  Remember that one? The list goes on. Not only do lit trips fuel a young reader’s imagination, they also give a sense of history and an understanding of what life was like earlier in our history.

One of the best books to inspire a reading road trip is Storybook Travels: From Eloise’s New York to Harry Potter’s London, Visits to 30 of the Best-Loved Landmarks in Children’s Literature by Susan La Tempa and Colleen Dunn Bates.  Here are a few other Web sites that offer great reading road trip ideas:

KidLit History  whose motto is “Everything I need to know about history I learned through children’s literature.”

Mommy Poppins.com

Travel Guide Through Children’s Literature

I can’t resist this one about Dr. Seuss-like places.

Parenthood.com 

Parentschoice.org

Greater Dayton Public Television 

Unputdownables

Here’s a library site, and finally,

National Geographic Traveler’s Ultimate Travel Library

So, with a tiny bit of research, you could pair a book about Abe Lincoln and a trip that would show both kids and parents why Abraham Lincoln was important… or why Paul Revere made that famous ride.

Nancy Pearl and Bill Bryson on Travel

I’ve been flipping through Nancy Pearl’s latest volume of her Book Lust series, Book Lust to Go—Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers.  It makes me want to pack my suitcase and try out a few of the locales for which she has reading suggestions—from Afghanistan to Zambia.  Actually, though I’m an adventurous traveler, I’d prefer to discover Afghanistan and Zambia as an armchair traveler, but the book offers plenty between A and Z for just about anyone interested in the literary side of travel.  Right now I’m looking at the “Veni, Vidi, Venice” section with, yes, lust.

Nancy is probably the world’s most popular librarian; she even has an action figure.  She was here in Minnesota a few weeks ago and spoke at the Southdale library and on Minnesota Public Radio.  You can listen to her interview on the MPR Web site. (Also, FYI, this isn’t Nancy Pearl in the photo above.  It’s Teddy Roosevelt, adventurer extraordinaire.)

She says in the intro to the book that (unlike me) she doesn’t like to travel that much, let alone lust for it. “I’m stymied,” she says, “by the very activities of planning a trip and figuring out an itinerary, choosing dates and what to pack. I’m frustrated by my inability to speak any language except English…. You try finding a Laundromat in Tallinn without knowing Estonian and you’ll soon discover that although everyone has assured you that all Estonians speak at least a rudimentary form of English, that doesn’t really seem to apply to most people over thirty.”

But one of my favorite writers, Bill Bryson, would argue that that’s the best part of traveling. In his book Neither Here Nor There, Travels in Europe, he says, “That’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.” I’m looking forward to seeing him tomorrow at Pen Pals.

The language problems can be the least of traveling disasters.  Book Lust to Go has a section that cracks me up: “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.”  Who hasn’t had a few mishaps while traveling?  They make the best stories. But these books will make most travelers’ problems and pitfalls look like a day at the beach.  Books such as Jim Malusa’s Into Thick Air:  Biking to the Bellybutton of Six Continents (think insects, extreme weather and landmines.)  Also, W. Hodding Carter’s Westward Whoa: In the Wake of Lewis and Clark. To that I’d add Candace Millard’s River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey about his unendingly horrible trip down a tributary of the Amazon, a trip full of treacherous guides, starvation, man-eating fish, malaria and much more.  At one point Roosevelt told his son, Kermit, to just leave him there to die.  Really, that’s where I draw the line. So much suffering is just no fun. Nancy Pearl prefers to be a virtual traveler through the pages of a book. If all trips were as bad as Roosevelt’s, I’d be happy to join her for an armchair adventure.