True Confessions of a Reading Addict, or, Geographically Inspired Reading, Anyone?

There were so many ideas for posts that I had at the beginning of this six-week guest-blogging run, but alas, the ratio of time-to-blog versus topics-to-blog was lopsided in the extreme.  Even so, it’s truly been an honor and a pleasure to stand on Scalzi’s Soapbox a couple of times a week over the past six weeks, and I’m especially grateful for everyone who took the time to comment on my humble offerings.  Cheers for putting up with me; this guest-blogging stint has been big fun from my perspective and has, I hope, served as an at least mildly entertaining diversion for you during Scalzi’s absence.

Scalzi is due back anytime now, so this is going to be my final post.  While I was thinking about what the topic of my farewell post should be, I wanted to come up with something as inclusive as possible, and I think I’ve come up with a topic that should prove to have the broadest appeal of my Whatever ramblings to date.

Why do I think that?  Well, because the topic at hand is reading.  As a self-diagnosed reading addict, I feel pretty confident that, of the common traits I share with everyone reading these words, all of us being readers (and very likely voracious readers) probably ranks pretty high on the list.  I don’t know about you, but for most of my life, I’ve often weighed (either consciously or otherwise) my leisure time options in terms of, “I could do X or I could read a book.”  More often than not, reading a book wins.  Simply put, reading is my drug of choice and I believe I qualify medically as an addict (and yes, I’m more than halfway serious when I say that).

I could get into lots of examples (reading while walking the dog for a mile every morning is the one that most people find especially noteworthy; a neighbor once remarked with evident good humor, “You know, it would be more impressive if the dog was reading”), but I’m going to focus on just one of my reading habits today.  For years now, one of my favorite reading habits has been what I’ve come to think of as geographically inspired reading, and based on that designation, it’s exactly what I expect you’d guess it is.  Whenever possible, when I travel, I try to select a book (or books) set in the city/state/country that I’m visiting, and bring it/them with me to read during the trip.  I’m not talking about guidebooks, mind you, I’m talking about novels or non-fiction works of history or journalism (ideally, a mix of fiction and non-fiction, but I tend towards novels more often than not when traveling).  So far this year, I’ve read geographically inspired books in New Orleans (Pegasus Descending by James Lee Burke), London (He Kills Coppers by Jake Arnott,  Making History by Stephen Fry, and as a pre-trip mood-setter, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine) and, most recently, on my Oregon vacation.

Contrary to my custom with geographically inspired reading, the Oregon trip didn’t start with a geographically inspired book because, well, because it was the week that Mockingjay came out, and I wasn’t going to wait any longer than necessary to dive into that sucker (say what you will about “juvenile fiction” if you must, naysayers, but The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins represents some of the best SF I’ve read in years); luckily, I was able to polish that one off pretty quickly, reading most of it on the flight from D.C.  The geographically inspired reading kicked in next, however, as I moved on to Greg Rucka’s Portland-set mystery, A Fistful of Rain.  The Rucka was the only book set in Oregon that I had on my “unread” bookcase when I packed for the trip, but I was tipped off by the friend with whom I was staying in Portland that James Lee Burke’s daughter, Alafair Burke, had set her first few mysteries in Portland.  Armed with that intel, the next day on my (first) trip to Powell’s, I picked up Judgment Calls, the first book in Burke’s Samantha Kincaid series.   Both books were gripping mysteries, which was a treat in itself, but the main point of geographically inspired reading is the setting, so to a large extent it was Portland that was the real star of those two books for me.

Which is the long way of saying that if you haven’t indulged in the practice of geographically inspired reading, I highly recommend that you do so, especially when traveling.  If you haven’t indulged in the activity already, you’ll just have to take it from me that it’s quite the reader’s thrill to read about places you may have just seen/visited (Powell’s was mentioned in both of the abovementioned mysteries, for example), and you’ll likely learn some things about the city/state/country you’re in that you’d have been unlikely to learn from any guidebook.  As well, based on something you may read in the pages of a geographically inspired book, you might even be inspired to alter your plans to fit in a trip to a site that hadn’t previously been on your radar.  I’ve done so, most recently last summer in Barcelona while reading Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Angel’s Game, and it was a singular thrill.  And geeky though such a thrill may be, I’m happy to take my thrills wherever I find ‘em, thank you very much.

So, to my fellow reading addicts out there … how many of you engage in geographically inspired reading?  Any other “true reading confessions ” you’d care to share with the group?  C’mon, I went first, so don’t be shy…

24 Comments on “True Confessions of a Reading Addict, or, Geographically Inspired Reading, Anyone?”

  1. Several years ago during my time spent as an over the road truck driver I became very fond of reading John Steinbecks books. The route taken by the Joad family in The Grapes Of Wrath was the same one I traveled twice a week,Steinbecks description of the view from Tehachapi looking down on Weedpatch is still essentially unchanged. My Further travels also routinely took me through the Salinas Vally and to other coastal locations that were familiar to me through his works.

  2. I don’t have a dog, but, as a teenager, I walked my mother’s dogs… while reading. You’re far from the only one, I think. :)

  3. I started reading Jim Butcher’s Dresden novels after living in Chicago. Only after starting did I learn he had never been there when he wrote the first one. :) Even so, not a series I regret getting into!

  4. I stopped reading while walking when I was in the fourth grade, and I walked into a metal bar protruding from a dumpster, poking the lens out of my glasses and pressing it firmly against my eye.

    As a child, I would read in the car until it made me carsick. I could not be prevented from doing this. It was not pretty.

    I have been known to grab cleaning products from under the sink in order to read the labels if I’m stuck in the bathroom. Interestingly, I was once marooned in just that situation with a Sidney Sheldon book. Couldn’t even get through the first paragraph.

    I just started reading My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell to my nieces. It’s set in Greece, on the island of Corfu, and the setting is at least five or six characters all on its own.

  5. My normal geo-biblio-activity is finding out where all the good used book stores are before I visit a city. Then making sure I have time to visit the most promising ones. I usually call ahead and ask each store if they have a good science fiction section, and if not, which other bookstore(s) they might recommend. Usually I can find one or two who will give me an honest answer about the area.

    As for reading “locally” when my father-in-law lived in St. Louis he turned me on to John Lutz’s Alo Nudger series. He discovered them in a “Local Author” section in the library. We even drove around looking for some of the buildings that are used in the stories. Here is a good description of the series:

    And as for “true confessions” … I read at least two books at a time, one in the bedroom and one in the downstairs bathroom. I often get more reading done in the bathroom on any given day.

  6. Well, since I spent 20 of the last 25 hours reading, i think I qualify as a full fledged addict. I should NEVER get more than one or two new books at a time. I made the mistake of getting three yesterday afternoon (all over 300 pages) and just finished book number three. On the upside, I did get to see the sunrise, as I was in the middle of book #2 at the time – the five hours not reading were spent sleeping, starting around 7 this morning. On the downside, I am now out of new books!

    “I have been known to grab cleaning products from under the sink in order to read the labels if I’m stuck in the bathroom.” OMG, yes, this!

  7. Several of Joe Haldeman’s books are set in my home state, Florida. I haven’t done much geographical reading but this post makes me curious. As to the three books in one day reply, me too. I remember reading East of Eden in under 24 hours because I didn’t sleep. And the Hunger Games series was incredible. My students are reading it as they can get it from the library and loving it.

  8. I started reading the Three Musketeers while travelling through Paris!

    I love matching books with trips. And of course there’s the all important issue of whether or not a book will fit in my handbag…

  9. My father always used to read while walking the dog. At some point or other, he bought a miner’s lamp to wear on his head so he could read during the evening walks. Once, while walking, he encountered my third grade teacher (who lived on the next block), and stopped to be polite. Naturally, he was still paying more attention to the book than to chatting, and our dog took the opportunity to piss on her leg.

    In the dog’s defense, her legs did look a little like tree trunks.

  10. I read while walking for exercise in a local mall. Every now and then someone asks how I can do that without running into things.

    And I must agree with your assessment of The Hunger Games et al. Wonderful reading. Obviously aimed at teenage girls, but written well enough so that doen’t matter. I haven’t been a teenager for a long time, and was never a girl, but I loved the books anyway.

  11. I love to travel. One of the reasons for this, I suspect, is that I am a reading addict as well and have been since I first started reading. Children’s and YA novels that were set in other countries were my favorite. Starting with the Anne of Green Gables books about Maritime Canada, moving to Joan Aiken’s books set in a fantastical England, on to Kate Seredy’s novels set in WW1 Hungary, and on and on. In my head I was someplace far away doing something daring and dangerous.

    I still love reading books about places I have been. Living in Seattle I loved all of GM Ford’s and Earl Emerson’s mysteries. I was so intrigued by a historical sites tour I took in New Orleans that I devoured Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January books, and later traced the steps of her vampire books in London and Paris. There is something about standing some place and thinking “aha! This is what that looks like!” that I love.

  12. I do, but in a slightly different direction: when possible, on travel I buy the books about living in a place that you’d never see in your home bookstore. (I also am more likely to buy books about a place I’ve been to, if I see them afterward.) This is why I own “Way Out Here: Modern Life in Ice-Age Alaska”; “Chronicles of the Big Bend: A Photographic Memory of Life on the Border”; “Twenty Years A Growing” (set on Great Blasket, a small island off Ireland); “Death Valley Scotty Told Me” and others. One exception, though: I’m extremely glad I read “The Worst Journey in the World” *after* getting back from Antarctica.

    By the way, Anne Fadiman has an excellent essay about what you’re calling geographical reading in her “Ex Libris: Confessions of a COmmon Reader” which I highly recommend to any book addict.

  13. I don’t do a lot of traveling, unfortunately, but when I moved to Florida this year, I found myself catching up on reading Carl Hiaasen, and a lot of his books are set here, in one location or another.

  14. If anyone is visiting upstate NY, which is unlikely to happen for pleasure, please read Richard Russo first. Specifically, “Mohawk,” and his other earlier works. The sense of place is overwhelming for me. He amalgamates 3 towns, but yeah, that’s where I grew up and the people who were there.

  15. Oh gods, that policy could backfire horribly if you ever travel to Ireland. Most of the fiction set in my country seems to have been written by people who thought watching “Far and Away” and “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” was the only research needed *shudder*

    “The Hounds of the Mórrígan” is a fantastic YA fantasy novel set in 80s Ireland.

    Roddy Doyle’s books are accurate depictions of inner city Dublin life, and funny, but I prefer my fiction to have swords or spaceships in it.

    The Ross O’Carroll-Kelly books have 21st Century Ireland spot on, but the odds of any non-Irish person being able to decipher the dialect are slim!'Carroll-Kelly#Language

    Hmm… can’t think of any more off the top of my head. That’s depressing.

  16. For an all-purpose, all-destination but very geographic entertainment, you can do no better than “Letters from Hav” by Jan Morris (or simply “Hav” in later editions). It’s a guidebook to a place which doesn’t exist. Or it’s an account of writing a guidebook which doesn’t exist about a place which doesn’t exist. Or it’s a novel about an account of writing a guidebook…
    But whatever it is, it’s good.

  17. Yup, I engage in geographically inspired reading when travelling. Not only during the trip but often afterwards. And like Mike (#5), what better way to feed this habit than by hunting down a good bookstore and adding some of their best to my luggage!

  18. There’s actually a field of literary study dedicated (well, kinda sorta) to this sort of thing (primarily lit fic, though): Ecocriticism, and one of the big proponents is Glen Love, a now-retired prof at the University of Oregon. I took his Northwest lit class way back when he was formulating his thesis; I’ve never looked at regional literature the same since.

    On the lit fic side, the quintessential Oregon novel is Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. The book, not the movie, please (though the movie isn’t bad). Kesey nails mid-century rural Western Oregon logging town just about dead solid perfect in that story.

  19. About the only piece of geographically inspired reading I’ve indulged in actually reversed the principle. I’ve lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma on and off for nearly 30 years, and early in my stint there I read a lot of books by my hometown hero R. A. Lafferty, but never got around to his great historical novel Okla Hannali (set in “Indian Territory”, as Oklahoma used to be called, mostly after the Civil War but before the land rush) until I spent a year-and-a-half in Seattle. Maybe I was homesick.

    (It’s not as though I couldn’t get hold of the book in Tulsa; for a long time it seemed like half the branch libraries in town had a copy of the original Doubleday printing, though theft and book sales seem to have winnowed these down to a single copy.)

  20. The fist book I read that made me want to go there was a book about books; 84 Charing Cross Road (by Helene Hanff). No, I’ve not been to London yet. I know it’s cheaper to travel than it use to be but I only recently had enough saved to do my first big trip. To Scotland and then I read Stuart Macbride when I came back though I’ve been enjoying his blog for a year or so now.)

    The other book I want to promote is Canadian and based on a poem by Robert Service that they use to study in school (I don’t know if they still do).

    That is The Man from the Creeks (by Robert Kroetsch ). It is a retelling of Robert Service’s incomparable “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”

    I’ve seen about 80% of what I want to see in my vast country of Canada but I haven’t been to the Yukon yet. I’d love to follow the Gold Rush tale but think I’ve gotten to old for all that hiking.

    As for being a bookworm, I use to keep track of everything I read. The last lists are from around 2007 and the yearly book (not mags, not newspapers etc) was around 300.

    I wish there were more book geeks nearby to talk to. I couldn’t remember the Charing Cross book so had to resort to Google – It took me twenty minutes and five keyword searches to find the title. I started out only remembering that the book was based on a series of letters between a bookseller in London on a well-known book street!

  21. I’ve been reading when walking, sometimes with a dog, since I was 10 and people have often pointed out that audiobooks would let me watch the sidewalks better, but my walking skills have been pretty good – I’ve only tripped and fallen a dozen or so times in 30+ years!

    East of Eden is my favorite book and when I finally traveled to the Salinas Valley, I kept pulling off the road to stop and stare and take pictures. I know it has changed a lot, but I felt somehow closer to the mountains and the fields from having read about them so many times.

    I’ve loved many of the authors mentioned here, especially Steinbeck, Durrell, Hamby, and O’Shea. Real places, written about with care, make stories even better, because it feels like you’re really there. I’m always impressed when it feels like I really know fictional places, such as Middle Earth, and the inside of spaceships from reading about them. One of my favorite places to go to was Callahan’s…..

  22. You have all done a lovely job. John should be very proud of you. I pick books by volume whenever possible. More words is always better, although, oddly enough, my favorites are short stories and essays. If I have a choice between 2 books, and can only have one, I will take the longer one. If I have a set amount of money to spend I will go to a used book store first. Paper back over hard cover. If I lose my eyesight, I will learn braille, because reading is not the same as being read to for a compulsive reader. Please come back and visit.

  23. A little late but…

    I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah. (the answer to the inevitable followup question is: No, I’m not a Mormon.) I’ve been living in the Emerald City for almost a decade now, but Utah still has a soft place in my heart. So any time I learn that a book has a Utah component, I pick it up. Miller’s Canticle for Liebovitz springs to mind, as do Ed Abbey’s fiction (Monkey Wrench Gang) and non-fiction (Desert Solitaire). But oddly enough, Seattle doesn’t tickle my reading list nearly as often as it should. The greater Pacific Northwest is also seldom seen (in part because I can’t stand Stirling’s Dies the Fire mary-su, I mean series.)

  24. I’m catching up with the blog after travelling. No geographical reading this time, but it was a very short trip and I had a book club book to read. I do like geographical reading though, especially to far away places. When on holiday in South Korea last year, my fictional books gave me lots of insight into the culture and also tips on how to act. Much better than a guide book.

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