Books That Triggered Authors’ Wanderlust

Published: May 14, 2006, The New York Times

LITERATURE has long shaped desire, including the lust for travel. Curl up in a chair, in St. Paul or Encinitas or New Rochelle, open a volume of Robert Louis Stevenson, Gabriel García Márquez or Isak Dinesen and discover new worlds, full of treasure seekers, smoky Paris cafes and vast sand-swept spaces dotted with scrubby brush under which zebra sleep.

Little, Brown

Walter Mosley.

Chris Ramirez for The New York Times

Mary Gaitskill.

Andre Luiz Mello/European Pressphoto Agency

Tom Wolfe.

A simple passage can be enough for you to put down your book and start searching Expedia for the next flight to points unknown. Think of the Côte d’Azur, as described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Tender Is the Night”: “It was pleasant to drive back to the hotel in the late afternoon, above a sea as mysteriously colored as the agates and cornelians of childhood, green as green milk, blue as laundry water, wine dark.” It’s enough to make you wonder what a flight to Nice would cost right now.

What books have shaped the globe-trotting desires of writers themselves? The Times asked a selection of lively minded thinkers what books most made them want to light out for the territory.

Would you be surprised to know that a now obscure author named Richard Halliburton — who in the 1930’s sailed the Mediterranean, scoured Persia, flew a biplane over the Taj Mahal upside down, trekked through Borneo and Timbuktu in search of adventure and romance and then disappeared in the South China Sea — came up again and again?

Or that more than a few readers were disappointed to find that a destination they visited after reading about it did not measure up to the place they had imagined? Or that Stephen Colbert’s most memorable book left him forever in search of a fictional land. Or that for E. L. Doctorow, a great travel experience could be one that didn’t require the reader to “move out of your chair to roam the world.” As Mr. Doctorow explained, “It was your imagination that got all the exercise.”

JONATHAN FRANZEN
“The Corrections: A Novel”

“Crime and Punishment.” Though I’m fully prepared to be disappointed, I’d like to get to St. Petersburg sometime and walk the streets that Raskolnikov hurried through after doing his hatchet murders. I’d also like to go into the back country of Iceland, where Halldor Laxness set his masterpiece, “Independent People,” before the island becomes a temperate beach destination.

WALTER MOSLEY
“Fortunate Son: A Novel”

“Journey to the East” by Herman Hesse; “Nine Princes in Amber” by Roger Zelazny; and “The Plague” by Albert Camus. These books made me both hungry for and wary of travel. I realized also that my desires were larger, by far, than my mind. “One Hundred Years of Solitude” has made me want to travel into the history that has been hidden and the stories that were lies. I felt, reading Gabriel García Márquez’s work, that I wanted to be in ghost-filled ruins that called out for me in pain and lust.

What books have most influenced your travels?
Share your suggestions | Read commentsLORRIE MOORE
“Birds of America: Stories”

I was a child who got carsick a lot, so the travel I mostly wanted to do tended to be less physical and actual and more like magic time travel to other places in history — Ancient Egypt or Victorian England or, even better, into the future. A Christmas book, “Nine Days to Christmas,” continues to haunt me. It was set in contemporary Mexico City, and I thought it would be wonderful to visit the marketplaces there at Christmastime, especially those selling piñatas (which, in the book, actually speak to children, unbeknownst to grown-ups), but I never have.

DAVID RAKOFF
“Don’t Get Too Comfortable”

Richard Halliburton’s “Complete Book of Marvels” offered a vivid illustration of what I could never be: utterly at home in the world. Halliburton moved in space and time in a way I knew I never would. (And, indeed, never did.) Plus he painted a portrait of a wonderful colorful world that was innocent and open and undiscovered and full of people who didn’t hate Americans.

MICHAEL CHABON
“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”

The “Twenty-One Balloons” by William Pène Du Bois. No trip I have since taken in my life has ever measured up to the ideal presented therein by Prof. W. W. Sherman’s journey, in the custom-fitted luxury of his impossible balloon house, to the nonexistent, never-existed, long-vanished island of Krakatoa. In fact, I have equaled him only in my occasional bouts of misanthropy.

ERIC ALTERMAN
“When Presidents Lie”

I read Simone de Beauvoir’s “Les Mandarins” living in Paris in my early 20’s. I was taken by its beginning, when the Sartre or Camus character (I forget which) takes a post-liberation vacation on the island of Djerba, off the coast of Tunisia, to relax from all that resistance and furtive love-making during the war.

Ten years later, I learned that Djerba was home to one of the oldest Sephardic synagogues in the world and also the best functioning Arab-Jewish relations anywhere, and I spent a week there. How did the real Djerba measure up to the one I’d read about years before? Given the fact that nothing in life ever manages to live up to anything in French fiction read as a young man in Paris, not badly.

STEPHEN COLBERT
“The Colbert Report”

“Lord of the Rings.” I always wanted to travel to Middle Earth. And now wherever I go, I am always on the lookout for Hobbits.

MARY GAITSKILL
“Veronica: A Novel”

When I was 17 and I read Henry Miller, it made me want to go to 1930’s Paris. He made it sound like a place where life was outsized and musical, where deep pits of feeling could be dived into directly without the awkwardness and self-consciousness that always seemed in the way. I felt something similar five years later when I read Colette, except she seemed to describe a place where even the most apparently crude people intuitively understood the most delicate shades of feeling. Peter Pan made me want to go places where the physical laws were completely irrelevant and the deepest feelings were simultaneously the lightest.

E. L. DOCTOROW
“The March”

I was bedridden for some months at about the age of 8 and remember devouring Richard Halliburton’s “Book of Marvels.” Halliburton swam in the Panama Canal, slept one night at the Taj Mahal, and climbed up the cables of the Golden Gate Bridge or was it the George Washington? And there was a series of boys’ books about a kid named Tad or Tod who traveled the seas on tramp steamers and had adventures. To this day the phrase “tramp steamer” can call up all sorts of free spirited intentions.

BRIAN GREENE
“The Elegant Universe”

John Reed’s “Ten Days That Shook the World” conjured romantic visions of snow-covered Russian expanses, of people rising up and taking power. Nothing quite conforms to our romantic ideals. I went to Russia in 1985, when it was still closed. It had an interesting quality, but was different from what I had imagined from the book.

TOM WOLFE
“I Am Charlotte Simmons”

Hong Kong is the place I want to go and have wanted to ever since I read a story with a scene I can’t get out of my head, especially my ears. It is a hot, humid night in Hong Kong, and our hero is walking down a narrow street with cliffs of dwellings on either side. “The very air itself was choked with the sound of a hail storm beating down on a slate roof. I looked up, and it was so hot, every window was wide open. A thousand? two thousand? three thousand? five thousand? creatures were crammed into those buildings, and every one of them must have been playing maj-jongg. What I was hearing was thousands of mah-jongg tiles clacking against each other. It was so loud you couldn’t have heard another thing if you tried.” I don’t know where I read it, but it was a literally unforgettable passage. If anyone happens to know where it comes from, please let me know.

SIMON DOONAN
“Nasty: My Family and Other Glamorous Varmints”

I read “The Man Who Watched Trains Go” by Georges Simenon when I was a teenager. The depiction of Paris — sordid, violent and full of strippers and hoodlums — filled me with appalled fascination. Despite the idyllic veneer, I still see Paris this way. Ditto Hubert Selby Jr’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” I am always looking for Tralala whenever I cross the bridge.

SIMON SCHAMA
“Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves

and the American Revolution”

As a child, I read deep in Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott historical novels and there was something about the word Trossachs that made me want to see them. It took me many years to get there, but when I did, the sun did actually light the heather and turn it purple exactly as I’d imagined.

After Graham Greene’s “Stamboul Train,” much of my childhood was about the romance of the railway — smoky corridors as the train ate up the miles and tunnels, with (I hoped) the odd body left in the baggage car.

When you combine this with the vision I had from “Tender Is the Night” (Fitzgerald was our god in the grim, gray London of the 1950’s), you’ll see how eager I was to catch the Train Bleu to Nice, which I did. All I needed were Fitzgerald’s tragic beautiful people laid out on a beach somewhere near Menton. But I was 13 and it was 1958. I settled for climbing a hill on Cap-Ferrat, and when the sun went down, lights went on in the hotels and cafes and there was lounge music (Gilbert Bécaud, I think).

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
“Thomas Jefferson: Author of America”

Since I have never wanted to travel for its or my own sake, but rather to take a closer look at war and revolution, I can nominate a few volumes that are imperishable in this respect. George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” prepares the reader and the would-be writer for the idea that there is always a war within the war and a revolution within the revolution, and Norman Lewis’s “Naples ’44” is a great curative for those who believe that the Second World War was a “good” war.

Lawrence Durrell’s “Bitter Lemons of Cyprus” may be about a Cyprus that has vanished, but as late as 1975 it still felt almost like a field guide to the manners and customs of the islanders. Despite his notoriously freehand way with facts, André Malraux’s “Man’s Fate” is still needful for anyone voyaging to Shanghai.

But most travel is saying farewell, as Susan Sontag phrased it, and the work of writers like Christopher Isherwood on Berlin, or E. M. Forster on India, though they may prompt yearning and curiosity, are now like the Lonely Planet Guide to Atlantis.

AL FRANKEN
“Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced View of the Right”

Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror” about the disastrous 14th century made me want to go to medieval torture places. It made me wonder how bad things can get. I wanted to go to France and see castles and manors sacked by peasants. I went. And the place didn’t live up to my expectations. I want to spend time in Iraq. George Packer’s “Assassins’ Gate” had a big affect on me. Mr. Packer conveys a sense of place, of the awful deterioration there — of what is happening to normal people in Iraq and what is happening to a culture — in a way that is infinitely more nuanced than what you see on the news.

ELIZABETH KOSTOVA
“The Historian”

Particular books can turn you into a particular kind of traveler by giving you the habit of thinking in their prose as you travel. “Treasure Island” made me think of travel as pure excitement. The great travel books of my adult life have been Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts” and “Between the Woods and the Water,” reminiscences of his walk from the Hook of Holland to the Iron Gates of the Danube — yes, I did say walk — in the early 1930’s. Fermor, like Stevenson, made me love the element of imagination in travel; Stevenson imagined adventure, but Fermor, walking across the map, imagined history.

JAMES SCHAMUS, producer, “Brokeback Mountain”

E. L. Konigsburg’s “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” made me want to visit New York City, as I was very curious as to how one could bathe in the fountain of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and sleep on Marie Antoinette’s bed. Needless to say, when I finally made my first visit, the museum did not live up to my high expectations — perhaps future renovations will get it up to speed.

ANDRÉ BISHOP, creative director, Lincoln Center Theater

My love of travel was fueled when I was a kid growing up in Switzerland and reading all the Tintin comic books: Tintin had adventures in the Congo, Tibet, China, the Soviet Union, Morocco and a number of invented countries. When I was older I read two wonderful travel books: E. V. Lucas’ “A Traveler in Italy” and a memoir of living in Spain by a minor member of the Bloomsbury Group, Gerald Brennan, called “South from Granada.” Of course I wanted to visit the places they described.

PATRICIA MARX, television and magazine writer, author

I do it in the reverse. I go to the place and then come home, read about it and wish I could go back. I just came back from the Galápagos. Then I read Darwin. I loved it. I loved reading Darwin better than I liked the Galápagos. I liked the Beagle more than the Explorer, my boat. Also Darwin was always seasick and I wasn’t. I had a better trip than he did. If he hadn’t, I would have come up with the theory of evolution. My observations were more astute than his. Plus I got to see the flightless cormorant and he skipped it.

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