When I’m planning a trip, I often choose a travel book. I like to read a book by an author from the country or city that I’m visiting while I’m there. I’ve found that the book that I’m reading while traveling has such an impact on my experience. When you’re reading a book set in the town you’re in by someone who knows it, it adds depth to your understanding of that place.
Here are eight classic books by authors from around the world to read on your travels.
England: Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
“…They were boarding the Hogwarts Express; talking and laughing as the countryside became greener and tidier; eating Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans and they sped past Muggle towns; pulling off their wizard robes and putting on jackets and coats; pulling into platform nine and three-quarters at King’s Cross station.” -Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
As someone who studied English literature for undergrad and grad school, selecting a book for travel in England was quite a challenge. From Geoffrey Chaucer to Virginia Woolf to Zadie Smith, there are a seemingly infinite number of books you could read to enrich your travels in England. In the end, I had to go with my tried-and-true favorite, Harry Potter.
From the density of London to the sprawling countryside, Harry Potter spreads magic throughout Britain. It’s a tale of the power of love and friendship, the importance of standing up for what’s right, and fighting evil in whichever form it may come. It provides lessons about family and death and questioning government policies. The stories unfold at Kings Cross station, speeding along on the Hogwarts Express, and out in the open country. It’s the perfect UK travel companion for readers of all ages.
France or Spain: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
“The fiesta was really started. It kept up day and night for seven days. The dancing kept up, the drinking kept up, the noise went on. The things that happened could only have happened during a fiesta.” -The Sun Also Rises
Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises begins in Paris and travels to Pamplona, Spain. Hemingway is American, but he spent a considerable amount of time in Europe, so he provides an expatriate’s perspective.
The story follows a group of expats as they attend the festival of San Fermín and watch the bull fights and running of the bulls. The plot consists mostly of characters meandering from this cafe to that, drinking and talking with one another, accompanied by the themes of the Lost Generation. While it may be problematic in some ways, the novel has endured through the years and is still one of my favorites. It pairs perfectly with glass of wine at an outdoor European cafe.
Italy: Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman
“I loved the afternoons best: the scent of rosemary, the heat, the birds, the cicadas, the sway of palm fronds, the silence that fell like a light linen shawl on an appallingly sunny day, all of these highlighted by the walk down to the shore and back upstairs to shower.” -Call Me By Your Name
Recently made into a film, Call Me By Your Name is a story set primarily in an Italian seaside town. Aciman’s 2007 novel focuses on the romance between an adolescent boy and a young man who comes to stay at his family’s summer house.
This beautiful and painful love story spans decades in its journey from Italy to New York. The book is filled with Italian phrases, places, and images, making it a perfect companion for your time there.
Japan: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
“There’re many things we don’t really know. It’s an illusion that we know anything at all.” -A Wild Sheep Chase
Murakami’s 1982 book A Wild Sheep Chase is a psychedelic journey through Japan. Beautiful and haunting all at once, this novel is part mystery and part magical realism.
The story follows its narrator as he travels around the country, all the way up into the remote, snowy north, trying to solve a peculiar mystery. This strange tale will pull you in and keep you in suspense as it unfolds.
Los Angeles, USA: Sex and Rage by Eve Babitz
“Jacaranda had come to feel at home with the idea that she was much too L.A. to ever be taken seriously. Only deadpan architectural historians from England took L.A. seriously and Jacaranda wished they hadn’t, because she liked L.A. the way it was — anonymous.” -Sex and Rage
Eve Babitz is an author, artists, and cultural figure in Los Angeles. As such, she nails observations about LA society right on the head.
With a main character named after the jacaranda tree, vague fears of New York, and strong Mexican food preferences, this book is filled with perfectly LA sensibilities. The story follows a girl named Jacaranda as she becomes a published writer and all the people she encounters along the way.
Originally published in 1979 and recently reissued, its commentary on Los Angeles beach culture and Hollywood social climbers is often as timely as ever. As an LA local, I highly recommend giving this book a read when you visit this endlessly eclectic town.
Mexico: Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquirel
“Likewise for Tita the joy of living was wrapped up in the delights of food. It wasn’t easy for a person whose knowledge of life was based on the kitchen to comprehend the outside world.” -Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquirel’s 1989 novel Like Water for Chocolate is a unique blend of recipes, history, and magical realism.
The story focuses on Tita and her family and their life on their ranch during wartime. Cooking is woven in with romance and family drama, all with a surreal touch. It’s beautiful, heartbreaking, and magical, and the perfect travel companion.
New York, USA: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“The bar is in full swing and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside until the air is alive with chatter and laughter and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.” -The Great Gatsby
Fitzergald’s The Great Gatsby is one of the most iconic American novels. If you grew up in the U.S., you probably read it in high school. Originally written in 1925, it’s an American golden age fantasy. With over-the-top parties and dramatic characters, it longs for a time and place that never quite existed, but a place we love to visit nonetheless.
The novel takes place in New York. It’s primarily set in fictional West Egg, which is on real life Long Island. It follows the ultimately tragic tale of Jay Gatsby and his love for Daisy, as told by his neighbor Nick, in the early 1920s. Through its glamorous parties on the island, dilapidated neighboring towns, and trips into the city, this layered novel is a timeless ride through the roaring ‘20s in New York.
Portugal: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by José Saramago
“He is in transit, his life is suspended. Beyond the smooth drapes the windows have suddenly become luminous, an effect created by the street lamps. Already so late, this day has ended, what remains hovers in the remote distance over the sea and is fast escaping.” -The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis
If you start reading this book before your first visit to Lisbon, you’ll find yourself feeling like you’ve already been there from the moment you arrive. José Saramago creates such vivid images of this city in this 1984 novel, it feels familiar right from the start.
The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is not a traditional novel, both in terms of structure and plot. Single paragraphs continue for pages and speech is without quotation marks. The title character, Ricardo Reis, is a heteronym of Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa. (Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet would be a great companion for The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.) Saramago’s novel blends daily life in Lisbon with world news, with allusions to Portuguese literature and history. It’s a challenging, rewarding read, particularly if you’re headed for Lisboa.
Another perk of taking a local book along on your travels is the memories it holds when you return home. When I pick up Like Water for Chocolate, I’m transported back to a seaside hammock in Akumal, Mexico. When I flip through The Sun Also Rises, I’m having a drink at a Parisian cafe.
By reading books set in your destination by those who know it best, it deepens your understanding of the place and enriches your experience.
What are some of your favorite books from around the world? Let me know your recommendations!
Happy reading! Cheers!
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