I think we read and we travel for many of the same reasons. We like to visit new places and experience new things. Books are a kind of travel by imagination.
Although I’ve travelled a fair bit, and I’ve read quite a lot, I’d never combined the two until I led discussions on the Classical Pursuits trip to Iceland earlier this month. And, I’m really quite surprised at how much the combination of the two added to my experience and enjoyment of each.
On our first day in Reykjavik our group took a rainy walking tour through the older parts of the city. Toward the end of the walk we found ourselves in the old cemetery that features prominently in Halldor Laxness’ lovely and wry novel The Fish Can Sing. The cemetery is a beautiful, weathered place, much larger than I’d imagined, and lush with mosses and gnarled birches. The rain that had soaked us all day had finally stopped, and a bit of sun started to peak through the clouds. The cemetery offered us a lovely afternoon walk.
I had a strange thought while we were making our way among the gravestones: “Oh, so this is the place where I was before.” I had not visited the cemetery before, but the place was not new to me.
I had been there in Laxness’ book. People (or characters) I cared about had walked there, sung there, and I had been there with them through Laxness’ words. The memory was genuinely mine; the memory was from a novel, so it wasn’t quite real, and yet it was. In the interplay between my memory and the place, both Laxness’ book and our afternoon walk were suddenly richer and deeper in a way I would not have expected.
Over the next ten days of our trip, I had much the same experience—at Halldor Laxness’ home, where we discovered the grandfather clock whose ticking provides the background music for The Fish Can Sing; at the Viking-age law courts in Thingvellir park, where the pivotal cases in Hrafnkel’s Saga and The Confederates’ Saga are tried; as we hiked a hill next to the site of a key scene in Njal’s Saga; and as we drove through the fjord where the hero of Egil’s Saga lived, fought and died. I knew these places before I’d seen them, and seeing them made my knowledge of them much richer.
I’m very much looking forward to the next Classical Pursuits trip I’ll be leading to Colombia in early 2015. I’m excited to see how the combination of travel and literature enriches and deepens our insight into the many faces of Colombia’s difficult past and vibrant present. As we travel from Bogotá to Medellin to Cartagena, we’ll get a dose of magical realism from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, confront the harsh realities of the Colombian conflicts in the novel The Armies by Evelio Rosero, and explore faith and love in The Angel of Galilea by Laura Restrepo. I do hope you’ll come along for the adventure. Click here for details.
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