Of the hundreds of library books for children transiting our home, this one has stuck in my mind for more than fifty years. It galvanized my play sessions: for months afterwards, I enacted scenes from the book and the most exciting part was the preparation for the voyage. There was an old steamer trunk in the spare bedroom in our house. Emblazoned with the initials of my mother’s maiden name, smelling of mothballs, it was crammed full of memorabilia–faded photographs of her Polish relatives from before the war, a Mexican tooled-leather handbag wrapped in plastic, purchased on her honeymoon. These items too held a trace of the exotic, of other places and times. I picked the lock with a hairpin, unpacked the contents, and used this trunk as the main prop in my playacting. I would spend hours happily filling it with my clothes, shoes, books, dolls, pretending I was about to leave on a long sea voyage to Europe, with Paris as my final destination
Fifty years later, I find myself a confirmed Francophile, living in Europe, speaking another language than the one I was born to, and a passionate fan of sea journeys. That little book which had come into my life quite by chance shaped my conception of travel and aroused in me an implacable desire for visiting foreign places, influencing my entire existence.
The power of books to transport us elsewhere, inspiring us to travel and framing our experience of place, is the topic of an intriguing, multidisciplinary study by two Australian academics from La Trobe University, Warwick Frost and Jennifer Laing, entitled Books and Travel This broad study investigates the nuanced ways that reading and day dreaming about places stimulate our imagination and construct our idea of travel. The English travel writer Vernon Lee, friend to Henry James, would have heartily agreed. She once wrote:
“For the passion for localities, the curious emotions connected with the lie of the land, shape of buildings, history and quality of air and soil, are born, like all intense and permeating feeling, less of outside things than our own soul… The places for which we feel such love are fashioned before we see them by our wishes and fancy; we recognize rather than discover them in the world of reality.”
The relationship between literature and travel, the tourist’s gaze, the history of literary tourism, travel as self-actualization and liminal experience, literary/ heritage tourism and territorial branding are among the many subtopics discussed in this fascinating study which draws on theoretical perspectives from many fields.
The authors offer a detailed analysis of diverse tropes and plot structures underpinning much travel literature (quest, adventure, pilgrimage, hidden worlds, time travel, escape, transformation) applied to dozens of classic and popular works of fiction and nonfiction for which short synopses are given. Although all media — photography, film, television, social media, computer games — may contribute to constructing our sense of a given place, it is the more immersive and intimate act of reading that lets us lose ourselves completely in an imagined place, recreating characters, stories and settings in our minds through a deep, solitary process of identification, often predisposing us towards a transformative conception of travel.
The process starts early. The authors argue “that the genesis of adult travel behavior can be traced in part to the books we read as children, and their influence is profound and long-lasting.” Many classics of travel literature both for children and adults have strong mythic or archetypal structural elements related to the hero’s journey. “Far from being lightweight fare, these books…start us on an imaginative pathway where travel is mysterious, magical, and often life changing,” they write.
This book is a must-read for anyone involved tourism studies as it provides a brief but perceptive analysis of the diverse motivations and aspirations that compel us to travel and an illuminating glimpse at how literary – cultural heritage tourism attempts to satisfy, exploit, and sometimes deny those aspirations and desires. I also highly recommend this book to all writers whose work, fiction or nonfiction, deals with travel and place. Frost and Laing’s discussion of transformative travel and the tropes associated with texts of this type provides rich insights into the magic and craft of story-making and into the psychological rewards readers hope to find in an absorbing book.
BOOKS AND TRAVEL will inspire you to reread many old classics and revisit your own personal mythology of travel and imagination, to decide for yourself if travel has been a transformative experience in your own life and to understand the factors which have shaped your sense of elsewhere.
If books you read in childhood have influenced your experience of travel, please leave a comment below and tell us how.