Books As Windows to the World

Whenever I leave on a trip, taking a good book with me is of utmost importance. I need to read on a plane, in an airport, in a hotel room.
But which book to take? I still like ‘real’ books better than e-books. I do read e-books because having them on my iPad is so easy. They don’t take up any space. But I find it harder to select e-books so only if I know that I want to read a certain title do I download it. It is fabulous that I can borrow ebooks from my local library, wherever I am in the world.
But a paper back doesn’t need a battery or wifi.
So I select books to take carefully. They need to be good stories that I want to finish. But I can’t love them so much that I want to keep the book. I do discard, trade or give away books I finish reading during my trip.

I’m always excited when a hotel or hostel turns out to have a small trading library. And the books I discover this way, are often amazing eye-openers to local reads that I would not otherwise have found.

Is it serendipity when a book falls into my lap that tells a story about the very place I am visiting? These books often expand my understanding and tell me the history of the place I visit. Here are some of my favorite titles that found me rather than the other way around.

While spending a few months traveling around Australia, I found these books on a trading shelf in camping ground offices:

Who Am I?, Robert Taylor – I was unaware of the mindblowing events of British children being send to Australia for labour and to populate the continent. Robert Taylor was one of these children who was promised an education but building a monastery. He wasn’t even orphaned. He became a park ranger and tried to trace his roots. A fascinating nonfiction read.

My Place by Sally Morgan is the account of how she discovered her aboriginal roots after her mother decided to raise her as ‘white’. It’s now a classic and shares the difficulties of accepting race and culture in a climate that was not conducive to anything aboriginal.

When I took the Alaska State Ferry once, from Skagway down to Bellingham, the ships stopped in places like Wrangell, Ketchikan and Petersburg. Along the way I read James Michener’s Alaska. The entire history of the huge state unfolded as I watched icebergs, eagles, Russian churches, canneries and frontier towns. Later, on another Alaska trip, I found Pilgrim’s Wilderness by Tom Kizzia, the bizarre but true account about a family cult.

I moved from Oregon to Salt Spring Island and, before packing all of our books, I grabbed one of the shelf that I had not yet read. To my utter amazement the book turned out to be the story of the history of Salt Spring Island. Based on a real family, The Freedom of Jenny by Julie Burtinshaw tells the story of the first permanent settlers coming to the very place I was moving to.

While traveling in Greece, I picked traded a book for a copy on the shelf in the hotel’s reception area. The Island by Victoria Hislop turned out to be based on the true history of a small island near Crete. The story of a leper colony is fictionalized but largely based on real characters. The book was made into a 20 episode mini series and is incredibly popular in Greece and England.

I took second hand books to Mexico to donate to a local school that had no books. Along the way, I read one of the small, children’s novels and loved the story it told of a Mayan village and the way life used to be here. The Corn Grows Ripe by Dorothy Rhoads is well worth a read if you are going to Mexico.

I hadn’t heard of the book before traveling to Israel, but now I wonder how I could have missed it. The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan is a powerful, beautiful tale that shows rather than tells of the deep rooted conflict in Israel/Palestine. It gave me reference and understanding as I traveled through Israel.

Just before going to Egypt, I came across a book in my local library called Down The Nile, Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff, by Rosemary Mahoney. Even though the nonfiction account on deals with only about three days on the river, it still gave me a better understanding of the people, the culture and the environment before traveling there.

I learn about Persian history and culture through the life and adventures of a British woman who lived early in the 20th century. She rode camels all over Afghanistan and Persia. She befriended men across the Middle East, advise Churchill of where to draw borders for Syria and lived a life full of adventures no woman had ever had before. She was Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert, the book written by Georgina Howell and portrayed in the movie by Nicole Kidman.

Stay tuned for more books that share unique corners of the world in my next blog.