Yesterday, a “Top Ten Tuesday” topic over at The Broke and the Bookish got me thinking about the power of geography in literature. Every good book transports its readers somewhere—to another time, place, or experience. But certain books leave a geographical impression that is likely to remain beyond the last page. If you’re in the mood for a short trip, without the security checks and jet lag, let one of these titles take you. These books—both fiction and non—will transport you somewhere you’ve probably never been and that you usually can’t go on your own. Come along.
Henry VIII’s court—Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
If you can navigate the sometimes treacherous language and confusing dialogue of Mantel’s prize-winning novel, you’ll get to go where most average citizens are never allowed: behind the scenes of the Tudor court during the reign of Henry VIII. Chief minister Thomas Cromwell will be your guide, as you follow the king around trying to persuade him of one bit of reform or another. Ultimately, Cromwell provides an up-close look at the inside of the Tower of London, otherwise known as the royal prison.
Appalachian Trail—A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson
So maybe you can hit the Appalachian Trail anytime you like, but you probably won’t pack the sharp wit or keen observation skills of humorist Bill Bryson. Join him on this journey, and I promise your own trek will be the richer for it—if you ever take it.
Turn of the 20th-century Dublin—Dubliners, by James Joyce
To really get acquainted with a place, you need to spend time with its people, right? That’s exactly what happens when you read the 15 stories of James Joyce’s classic collection. Ireland is a small country, and all of the Dubliners Joyce introduces us to are living small lives, doing everyday things. But each character is on the verge of something big, an epiphany that may change everything. This book gives you a tour not only of Dublin’s pubs, shops, and shores, but also the human heart.
Mid-century America—On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
You’ve never experienced a road trip until you’ve accompanied beatniks Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise on the original road trip. They will show you a wide swath of late-1940s America, from west to east and back west again. You might have to hitchhike part of the way, and you won’t always like your traveling companions, who often act moody, childish, and irresponsible. But you’ll see an awful lot of cool scenery on the way.
Pacific Theater of World War II—Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand
I never said these destinations were going to be desirable. This nonfiction best-seller—soon to hit movie theaters—will give you the uncomfortable sensation of being circled by sharks while going without food and water for some 40 days. The next leg of the trip with hero Louis Zamperini heads to Japan, where he survives several POW camps and then explores the aftermath of the atomic bomb, before returning home to California.
New England and the High Seas—Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville
The Pequod welcomes you aboard in 19th-century Nantucket, back when the island was home to whalers and not high-society vacationers. The moment you set sail, you’ll realize that Captain Ahab is holding you captive on his quest for revenge. It’s a long, long, long journey, but you won’t soon forget your whale-hunting expedition with Ishmael in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans.
India upon the birth of its independence—Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie
The story of Rushdie’s main character, Saleem, is a story of India. The two are so intertwined (Saleem having been born on the night that India achieved its independence) that, as we learn the personal past of Saleem and his family, we are also getting to know the national history of India. This magical narrative will walk you through births, deaths, battles, and love affairs. And it all ends in a pungent place you might not expect: a pickle factory.
Post–Civil War Spain—The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Readers are so taken with the setting of Zafón’s perennial book club favorite that an actual tour has been added to the back of recent editions. Now, if you go to Barcelona, you can retrace Daniel’s search for mysterious author Julián Carax through the back alleys of Barcelona. It’s a pity that, in real life, we can’t also visit that wonderful labyrinth that lives only in the pages of Zafón’s novel: the fantastic Cemetery of Forgotten Books.
The Judean Desert—Quarantine, by Jim Crace
If you’ve read your Bible but found it hard to imagine Jesus’s 40-day experience in the desert, here is a different sort of account to take you there. You’ll spend time cave-dwelling not only with Jesus—who is very human in Crace’s reinterpretation—but also with some other sojourners who are likewise seeking redemption in the wilderness.
The African Congo—Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
This book is for adventurous souls who don’t mind taking a mysterious journey down the Congo River, deep into the African jungle, to find a man about whom a lot is said but little is known. You’ll come face to face with the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of British imperialism at the turn of the 20th century. And you will, indeed, eventually meet the man called Kurtz, as you try to ascertain the real “heart of darkness.”