The last time I was in London (which was only the second time I was in London), I hauled with me a hard-bound copy of Edward Rutherfurd’s novel “London.” If you know his books, you know that they are huge: “London” is more than 800 pages long and weighs 3 pounds.
Rutherfurd has written a string of these novels, which chart the history of a city or a country from early days to modern times by following several families through generations. Books focus on New York, Dublin, Paris, Russia. They are not great literature. They are entertaining and historically accurate, and if you happen to be in London while reading “London,” you’ll find it educational and interesting; everything you see comes alive (even as your back hurts from lugging around 3 pounds of book).
Midsummer is, for many, the heart of vacation season, and I’ve been thinking about the confluence of books and travel. Certainly we read books to transport us to places we’ve never been, but books can also give us a window into a place we plan to visit, a sense of people and daily life that a typical travel guide does not.
One of the Star Tribune’s book critics, who lives in New York, e-mailed me recently, telling me that he was planning a trip to Scotland and wondering if I knew of any books he should read before he left. Ha! I said. I do not! But we have a critic in Scotland; I’ll ask him.
And yes, the Scottish critic had suggestions galore, from James Robertson to Muriel Spark to Alan Warner to Alexander McCall Smith (with strong caveats) to Philip Kerr, Ian Rankin, Sir Walter Scott, James M. Barrie, John Buchan and Robert Louis Stevenson.
“One book which isn’t anywhere as famous as it should be is James Hogg’s ‘Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner,’ which explores the two-sided Scottish character (yes, we are all nuts) and did so ages before Jekyll & Hyde,” he wrote.
“And it may be interesting to throw in J.K. Rowling, who is of course English, but as she lives here now, is married to a Scot, wrote all the Harry Potter novels here and is engaged in Scottish politics and culture, is pretty much an honorary Scot.”
I don’t know if the New York critic was overwhelmed by these enthusiastic floodgates, but I sure was. (He might want to postpone his trip until 2019 in order to get all the reading done.)
So what about you? Do you read books in advance of a trip, to give you a flavor of a place? Or do you read books afterward that are set where you visited, so as to extend the vacation? Do you read William Trevor before a trip to Ireland, maybe, or Alistair MacLeod before traveling to Nova Scotia? Please write and let me know.
And the trips need not be far away or exotic. For all you Minneapolitans and suburbanites who might be thinking of venturing to the capital city, I recommend that you first read “Vestments,” a novel by John Reimringer that is set so firmly in St. Paul you could use it as a walking guide: The characters stroll down Hamline Avenue, drive down Summit, grab a blanket and climb the bluffs along the Mississippi River, sip malts at the St. Clair Broiler, shop for cars at Midway Chevrolet.
It gives you more than a sense of place; it makes you feel like you’ve already been there. And it’ll make crossing the river much less scary.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books. email@example.com On Twitter: @StribBooks. facebook.com/startribunebooks