Stack of Books with Daisies

Readers Make Better Travelers: Why I Skip the Travel Guides and Head to the Fiction Section

I’ve never been much of a fan of travel guides. This is funny because I grew up with a mother who would browse the travel section of Barnes & Nobel to kill time, pick up a guide to Norway on a whim, and then announce that the entire family would be vacationing in Bergen that summer. 

My mother loved planning. Our trips were often planned down to the hour. We’d be in Italy one day, Spain the next, and Oh but while we are here we should probably see Greece, right? 

(Christmas 2012–Athens, Greece. A “short hop” from Prague.)

But when I started traveling on my own, I never once bought a guide. In fact, I rarely have anything planned further than an AirBnB for the first night. I guess when it comes to traveling, I always preferred to let the country show me what I need to see, as opposed to assuming the writers of Lonely Planet knew Beirut’s top ten restaurants for hummus better than the little old Lebanese man who has lived in my apartment building his whole life. 

Of course, these guides can be helpful. One summer I ended up in Azerbaijan just because I had read about these remote mud volcanos in a friend’s copy of a travel guide. 

Note: The volcanos were absolutely worth it! 

The Soul of a City

I think what I don’t like about travel guides is there is no passion in them. There isn’t supposed to be. They are practical lists, boiling down as much information as possible into bite-sized pieces to be consumed efficiently.

But that’s not what traveling means to me. I don’t want traveling to be bite-sized. That’s also not what reading means to me. Traveling and reading are my ways of connecting, of sharing and learning—of understanding people and life a little better. 

Readers make better travelers because both reading and traveling should be about passion.

The first time I felt that passion for place in book form was when I read God of Small Things in India. I wasn’t even in Kerala when I read it, but I felt my year in India had still helped me connect with the work in a way I may never have understood otherwise. 

Then I read One Hundred Years of Solitude in Colombia and The Sorrow of War in Vietnam. Love in the Time of Cholera helped me understand why my South American relationship imploded far better than any issue of Cosmo could have. Malaysian-Chinese writer Yangzhe Choo introduced me to the world of ancient Chinese superstitions, an enchanting world I had no idea I was missing! 

Books have helped me build more sophisticated relationships with the places I have lived in traveled. They are never watered down or tidied up for tourists. A great story sticks with you even when the smell of chai or hum of motorbikes gently fade.

And so, before your next trip, when you go to buy the newest edition of Lonely Planet, take a minute to Google the top books and authors of your destination. Lonely Planet might have great advice on how to connect between the bus and the metro, but the local writers will have great advice on how to connect with the city’s soul.