Books are Compasses
May 15, 2023 § 8 Comments
By Shawna Kenney
My first trip outside of the United States was a month-long backpacking trip in Europe. I’d saved money from many jobs for two years so I could treat myself after graduating from college, heading out with a friend, a Eurail Pass, and the Lonely Planet’s Shoestring Guide. This was the mid-90s, so we depended on the hostel phone numbers, the suggested itineraries, the historical snippets, and the occasional tip-off to vegetarian-friendly establishments.
Of course, sometimes the information proved to be outdated, like the day we hiked up a long, steep street in Lausanne, Switzerland, to the promise of a vegan restaurant, only to find a sign on the door saying they were under renovation and “closed for 3 months.” We found a nice Italian restaurant instead—and accidentally stumbled into a “blue movie” theater, something we joke about to this day.
Two weeks into the trip, my friend chided me on the train through Italy, “Get your nose out of the book! You’re missing everything.” It was true—but I couldn’t help myself. I have always read everything I could get my eyes on. As we moved on to each new city, I lightened my load by tearing away sections of the heavy tome and throwing them away.
My second trip to Europe was seven years later on a book tour promoting the UK edition of my memoir. This was an entirely different experience—staying in Bloomsbury, imagining Virginia Woolf walking those streets; staring in reverence at the earliest printing of Rikki Tikki Tavi in the British Library; studying cuneiform texts on 7th Century clay tablets in the British Museum. My travel buddy—now husband—and I were whisked around by a publicist from bookstore to bookstore, where I shared my own work and signed stock, giddy and grateful for the opportunity.
When we toured the publisher’s warehouse, they invited us to take a copy of any forthcoming book. My husband chose 1421: The Year China Discovered America. It not only put our existence and experience into context, but I teased him that it weighed more than the original Shoestring Guide.
I still have a penchant for reading stories set in the places I’m traveling. It’s a heady mix of movement and mind. This transcends genre, perhaps because growing up in a household full of non-readers in a small rural town often referred to as the “middle of nowhere,” trips to the library meant books—my lifeline, my portal to the rest of the world and worlds that existed only in our minds. A good story is a good story.
Now, reading about places I’ve been or plan to visit is like a literary score for lived experience. I devoured Gioconda Belli’s The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War just after visiting Nicaragua. Before flying home to Los Angeles from Sweden years ago, a friend handed me the first English translation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I knew nothing of the author, plot or genre but inhaled all 500+ pages by the time the plane landed, easily imagining Lisbeth Salander running around Stockholm and Mikhail Blomquist’s snow-sprinkled waterfront flat.
Books create associations with locales, if not help define them. Deanne Stillman’s Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, followed by the audio version of Lakota America by Pekka Hämäläinen, accompanied me on my drive through the Black Hills of South Dakota. I read Babette’s Feast in Denmark for the first time. While others were taking the Harry Potter, C.S. Lewis or J.R. R. Tolkien walking tours in Oxford recently, a friend and I did the basic Bodleian Library tour, where I gleefully recognized The Bodleian Oath I’d just read in The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (and yes—I bought a tea towel conveying the covenant). And once, while driving through Louisiana, I actually said out loud “this is werewolf country” while pointing to a sign for Shreveport, thanks to Charlene Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels.
I couldn’t help but see the Los Angeles of Joan Didion, Raymond Chandler or Charles Bukowski everywhere I turned over 20 years of living there, while preferring the poems of Wanda Coleman to show me “from L.A. to El Dorado” and the entire canon of Michelle Serros showing me her beloved Oxnard.
I have done a little travel writing myself through the lens of food, pop culture and outdoor activities, which has given me even greater respect for writers who can make place a character so well. I hope my words have guided someone to the places their hearts desire.
Now, whenever traveling, I trek to the local bookstore, quick to ask for a recommendation of a book set in or about the region. I ponder what I will write of my new home in southeastern North Carolina, if this setting chooses to appear in my work. Otherwise, I will just keeping looking for it in someone else’s.
Shawna Kenney is the author of four books, most recently Live at the Safari Club: A History of Hardcore Punk in the Nation’s Capital (Rare Bird Books). Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, The New York Times, Playboy, Narratively, the Brevity Blog and more.
Touring the USS Constitution in Boston while also reading Patrick O’Brian!
Welcome to North Carolina. Where the Crawdads Sing is based here as is Big Lies In A Small Town by Diane Chamberlain.
Love the tea towel detail–yes must always pick one up on location in the UK
Ha–thank you. Snagged one for my mother-in-law, too.
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