My first trip to India wouldn't have been as rich had I not been reading Salmon Rushdie's masterwork "Midnight's Children" on the plane on the way over and at night after exhilarating, exhausting days exploring Delhi, Agra and Udaipur. The book taught me much about the modern history of the country, and help me decipher the complex, utterly foreign scenes I saw in front of me on the streets of these cities every day. Reading the book in conjunction with my trip was, without hyperbole, a transcendent experience.
I feel much the same way about reading "The Sun Also Rises" in Spain, "The Leopard" in Sicily and EB White's "This Is New York" in my hometown.
But finding the right book to read when you go is key. And I'm not just talking guidebooks (you know my last name, so you should know what I'd recommend for those!). Though many of us no longer have to worry about book weights anymore thanks to the I-Pad and the Kindle (well, I do; I'm a late adapter) taking the wrong book can be a bummer. It wastes your time during a period when your time is precious.
Enter Nancy Pearl, librarian, NPR commentator and awesome speed reader. She's put together a delightful book which recommends literally thousands of other books for every major destination in the world and more than a number of minor ones. Whether you're heading to Paris, Parma or Detroit, you'll find expert recommendations on what books to bring.
Pearl's writing is concise but full of passion and often very personal. In her introduction to books on Spain, for example, she discusses the fact that her father fought in the Spanish Civil War and considered it to be his most important achievement. Her book suggestions heavily weigh towards that war and the continuing impact it has today on the lives of Spaniards.
Its a personal list, so everyone will have quibbles. I was surprised not to see any books by Hemingway in the Spain section.
For the most part though, she's right on. And when I spoke with her the other day (we interviewed her for our radio show), she assured me that she'd read every single book she recommended. If you see the size of the tome, you'll know what an accomplishment that is.
The book just hit bookstores this week. If you have an avid traveler among your friends or family, consider it as a gift for them. Its that kind of book.