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Travel Reading 101: Destination novels

A birch forest outside of Moscow. Reminds me of the birch lined avenue at Tolstoy's country estate.
A birch forest outside of Moscow. Reminds me of the birch lined avenue at Tolstoy's country estate.

Don't get me wrong. I've certainly heard the siren's song of the Chuck Palahniuks, Nora Roberts, and Dan Browns at the airport newsstand. The plane is delayed, the layover is lagging. The journal articles you brought from work or school to read in the likely occurrence of just this situation are boring you out of your mind and turning a two hour delay into a four hour delay. You'd like nothing better than to grab a comforting cup of coffee and pass the time with one of these page turners. I have often happily succumbed to their lure myself.

But summer reading, and travel reading in particular, doesn't have to be just an entertaining way to pass the time. It can be a terrific opportunity to enrich your travel experience. I first learned this on a trip I took to Russia when I was in high school. I was reading Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Seeing the cities and countryside involved in the book added vividness to what I was reading; and reading the novel added depth to the sites I was seeing.

So with that in mind, allow me to recommend some books that will stay with you long after their covers close. As the breadth of my reading has been in English and Russian literature, I'll start there, and continue to other destinations in subsequent articles.

On the lighter side...
Emma, by Jane Austen

While it's likely you've seen this classic in one film incarnation or another – 1995's Clueless, Gweneth Paltrow's 1996 Emma, Kate Beckinsale's 1997 Emma, or Doran Godwin's 1972 Emma,-- nothing quite compares to the intelligent and humorous intricacies of a Jane Austen novel.

Not only will the book leave you feeling light and at peace with the world, and the twists, turns and subplots keep you turning pages; but Austen's keen perceptions provide insight into the origins and meanings of class and manners in old English society. It's a terrific foundation from which to compare and contrast the current culture.

After reading the book, might I suggest you watch Michael Apted's Up Series?

A little deeper...
Of Human Bondage, by Somerset Maugham

Don't let the dour title fool you. This book is anything but depressing. When you finish the last page and close the covers, you will probably need to take a moment to stare inward, and it may change your life.

It's a rare bird that hasn't felt the wanderlust in some form or another, which makes this a great book for a European tour as well.  If you've chased a dream only to be disappointed by it in the end – If you've struggled to find your place – If physical imperfection has caused a profound self-consciousness – Or if you've had that poison lover that for some reason you just couldn't give up – then this book is for you.

If you prefer to keep kidding yourself however, best pass this one by...

Way down deep...
The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy

I've always thought it very difficult to balance discussing truly profound topics such as the nature of good, evil, morality, love and cowardice, without coming off as trite, inexperienced, self-righteous or preachy. Manage to be entertaining on top of it all and you've got a classic on your hands.

It's a balance Tolstoy doesn't always maintain perfectly. Witness: War and Peace. Can a book about war and peace really be that long without drifting into some moralizing preachyness? No.

But in The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, all of Tolstoy's brilliance has been distilled for you down to perfection. Not only does the book give short bursts of insight into Russian cultures and customs of yore, but into the timeless and unchanging human condition.

A birch forest outside of Moscow, similar to what surrounds Tolstoy's country estate

A little more absurd...
The Man with the Black Coat: Russia's Literature of the Absurd, by Daniil Kharms and others.

Allow me an excerpt:
"Once there was a redheaded man without eyes and without ears. He had no hair either, so that he was a redhead was just something they said.

He could not speak, for he had no mouth. He had no nose either.

He didn't even have arms or legs. He had no stomach either, and he had no back, and he had no spine and no intestines of any kind. He didn't have anything at all. So it is hard to understand whom we are really talking about.

So it's probably best not to talk about him anymore."

Kharms himself makes for a brilliant and tragic story. The son of an anti-czarist revolutionary, he embraced Russian futurism. However, his unusual and absurd prose earned him the reputation of being “anti-soviet.” A dangerous accusation, he was exiled for a time, before being arrested for treason, imprisoned in a psychiatric ward, and starved to death during the Nazi blockade in 1942.

Lenin's tomb, just outside the Kremlin. Red Square, Moscow

I accidentally came across this book years ago in the Cleveland public library, opened to the middle, and began laughing so hard I started crying. The driest of the dry. The definition of absurdism. Absolutely one of the best things I have ever read.