While cruising Maine’s Penobscot Bay on a schooner, this girl was immersed in a Harry Potter book. She could have been me at age eight.   ©Laurel Kallenbach

You can tell a lot about a person by their books: at home and on the road.

I have shelves of uncategorized fiction, including books I’ve read and those I haven’t. There’s a small, poetry-sized shelf for volumes of poems. There’s a delicious space for cookbooks in the kitchen. The sustainable living books are on my loftiest shelf.

And—of course!—I have devoted several rambling shelves to travel guides and travel memoirs and travel histories. All the destinations are mixed up: Egypt beside Ireland beside Singapore beside Belize. I’ve remapped the world.

Going Places

Whether or not a book is specifically about travel, it takes me on a journey—figuratively and literally. Many times, when I look at photos from past vacations, I’ve noticed that the book I’m reading made it into a picture or two.

Antigua’s Carlisle Bay beach was lovely, but my mind was in 17th-century Holland: I was reading Tracy Chevalier’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring.” ©Laurel Kallenbach

In fact, I often remember the books I read during specific trips, either because they helped pass long hours on the airplane or because I was so mesmerized by the book that it distracted me from the actual destination.

For instance, I read The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan in Fiji. I had plenty of time toward the end of the trip for reading because a hurricane was moving through that part of the Pacific. Although the hurricane remained 500 miles from the Fijian islands, the water got so murky that snorkeling was bad. By afternoon on the remote island of Kadavu, it started to rain buckets. We were staying in a solar-lit, thatched bure; when ours got damp and dark, we huddled in the dining building, which had a metal roof and hurricane lamps. I was happy to disappear into Tan’s magical mother-daughter saga. The next day, we flew back to the main island and stayed at a hotel near the airport. There, Ken and I sat on the bed and gazed out at horizontal rain and wind as they denuded the palm trees. Escaping again into the book, I could almost forget the howling outside.

“The Traveller’s Guide to Sacred Ireland” by Cary Meehan took me to amazing standing stones, like Kilclooney Dolmen in County Donegal. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I read Jurassic Park during my honeymoon on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Ken read it on the flight east—and during our unexpected sleepover in Atlanta due to cancelled flights. Then I read it on the beach and during the flight home. (To help us travel light, we pack books that both of us are interested in. That way we swap books halfway through the trip.)

In Scotland, I read a second-hand Amelia Peabody mystery—one of a series of charming archaeological whodunits set in Egypt during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When I was finished, I donated this one to a retreat-center library on the island of Cumbrae. (That’s another secret to traveling light: leave it behind for someone else to read.)

In England, I read Pride and Prejudice for two reasons: a) because I never had, and b) because it felt right to be reading Jane Austen while visiting the very manor houses, villages and gardens where the P&P movies were filmed.

Dove è la Toilette? (Where’s the bathroom?)

Where would we be without guidebooks and phrasebooks? Lost, I imagine. In the days before e-readers, I photocopied the pertinent pages before I traveled and then discarded the pages as I moved from place to place.

True confession: I still do this because a) I prefer not to lug expensive electronics around the globe, and b) batteries choose to die and wireless tends to disappear the instant I arrive in way-off-the-beaten-path places.

The Temple of Apollo at Stourhead estate in England, was the setting of a love scene in the 2005 movie “Pride and Prejudice.” I read the book while I was in the region. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Rick Steves’ Italy was my lifeline 15 years ago when I traveled alone for a month in the Lake District and Tuscany. I carried photocopied pages (a Rick Steves–sanctioned method), and everywhere I went—restaurants, cafés, museums, hill towns, lakes—Americans pored over the same book. The Rick Steves guide was an excellent ice-breaker: after all, you know the reader speaks (or at least can read) English. Many times I’d lean over to the adjacent table at a trattoria and start a Rick-related conversation:

“I see you’re traveling with the Rick Steves guide. Are you staying in Varenna or Menaggio here on Lake Como?”

“We got into that cute little mom-and-pop hotel in Varenna. You?”

“Varenna. That hotel was booked, so I’m staying at a nice place on the outskirts. A little pricier, but there’s a lovely garden and a fresco in the breakfast room! How are Rick’s suggestions for restaurants here in town?”

“Outstanding! We’ve been to all of them. ‘Stick with Rick’ is our motto.”

Stick with Rick became my mantra for that trip—half of it anyway. I mostly agreed with his recommendations for pretty medieval villages to visit, and I appreciated his historical background. In May, when tourism was light, seeing others with Rick Steves’ Italy was a novelty. By June, as crowds increased, the thrill had worn off and I had to get off the Rick grid for a little solitude.

For better or worse, at home or abroad, books unite us.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted July 2013

What books have transported you most? Does a certain type of book work for you when you travel? And how do you read: eBook or paper? Leave a reply below, if you like…

I used the titles of books to create a little “book haiku” about traveling. ©Laurel Kallenbach


Showing 12 comments
  • Carol

    Neat idea for a travel article. Love the book haiku! Books are nearly the only way I get to travel and I have no complaints. But when and if I ever do get to travel Italy is on the top of my list and I will need to get a copy of that Rick Steves book.

  • Ardee Imerman

    I wonder what good reads you all have for Machu PIcchu….?

    • Laurel

      I just read “I Promise Not to Suffer” by Gail Storey. It’s about a couple in their 50s who decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Funny but touching. Could be a good high-altitude read! When are you going to Machu Picchu?

  • Susan

    love the “book haiku”!

  • Claire

    I like to read anthologies. If I put it down for days, I won’t have lost my place.

  • Barbralu Cohen

    Any suggestions for Jake for his Central American odyssey?

    • Laurel

      If Jake is in Guatemala, I highly recommend the colorful villages around Lake Atitlan. The small city of Antigua is also a glorious place: I was there during Christian Holy Week: it’s really something to see the parades of pilgrims in the streets. (Maybe they do something exciting for Day of the Dead (Oct. 31–Nov. 1) And for Mayan pyramids, there’s no place like the park at Tikal.

      As for reading material: I’d recommend the Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He’s Colombian, but I love his writing and magical realism.

  • Karen

    I don’t have an e-book yet. I take whatever I’m reading at home IF it is a paperback I’m willing to throw away when I’m done instead of pack it home. But since I’m not patient with books I don’t enjoy or admire anymore, I almost always want to keep them forever or pass them along to friends, so I opt to take loads of backlogged magazines, brochures, on-board mags, even the insurance and health insurance magazines that have built up in a pile at home — they aren’t serious reading, don’t take concentration, and can be tossed/recycled without a lick of guilt.

    • Laurel

      My husband takes along recyclable magazines on most of our trips. I, somehow, prefer a novel if I’m flying overseas, but for short trips, magazines are a fantastic option. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Kathy Kaiser

    Every time I bring a book, I end up not reading it, because my new destination will put me in an entirely different mood, and I’ll want to read something either about or from that area. I usually start out with magazines and then end up buying something locally (where the language is English).

    Great question.

  • Jean Tate

    There is nothing like settling into a good book while traveling… after a day of much walking & seeing, to sit back with your friend the book is just the best & a good way to wind down before sleep finally comes. Book I started reading after New Zealand trip thanks to Susan Senseman was Sally Mann’s HOLD STILL. So poetic in its outlook, it just hit the spot and i always loved returning to it, even though it’s pretty grizzly in parts.

    • Laurel

      I love how you describe the book as a beloved travel companion! I agree that it’s good to turn inward at the end of a day of traveling in which the focus is very outward!

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