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An introduction to advanced reading for travel

Several important book lists, from knowledgeable sources
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

Books are the key to a rewarding vacation—and I am not referring here to the hotel-and-restaurant guides that so many Americans pick up before leaving on a trip. I’m talking about the books found for free at a public library, that deal with the history and culture of the places you’re about to visit.

Travelers who go to faraway lands without first opening such books, are condemned to disappointment before they so much as board the plane. They wander the streets of Bangkok, Bali or Bruges without a clue, puzzled and uncertain, unable to discern the age or the era of buildings, mystified by the religious figures who pass by in strange garb, barred from the wonders that could have been theirs had they arrived properly prepared to travel.

And the funny thing is that even the most second-rate, pot-boiling, amusing, historical novel can produce such rewards. If all you have the energy for on your flight to Italy is an appalling page-turner called “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” by Irving Stone, you will still have greatly enhanced your enjoyment of Rome and Florence. You will have found that the very stones then come alive. When, in your stay, you pass a Florentine townhouse known as “Casa Buonarrotti,” you will not simply pass it by, as you normally would have—you will remember from your earlier light reading that Buonarrotti was the family name of Michelangelo and that here his genius flourished as a child.

And if all you have the strength for in the course of a flight to Amsterdam is a light-hearted, superficial, paperback on the life of Rembrandt, that too is better than reading nothing. Here you’ll learn of the young man flush with success who built a magnificent home of the sort that few artists could normally aspire to, only to discover that the burghers of Amsterdam were no longer buying his paintings. You’ll read how the mortgage on that home turned it into an albatross, casting him into bankruptcy and desperation. And as you then pass the magnificent former home of Rembrandt van Rijn in the heart of Amsterdam, which had such a crushing impact on the artist’s life, what otherwise would have seemed a simple pile of bricks will take on meaning and emotion—all because you have prepared yourself for it.

It is better, of course, to read weightier books about the destination in advance of a trip—we’ll get to those later. But even a work originally intended for children—I’m thinking of David Macaulay’s “Cathedral”—can sometimes make all the difference in a trip to Europe, where every orientation sightseeing tour includes a visit to a medieval cathedral. Unless you understand those structures in advance, how can you enjoy such an important part of the European touring experience? Macaulay’s book tells why the Gothic cathedrals were designed as they were, the functions each segment of those cathedrals served, the alterations that later generations made in their basic design. Reading it can make you a bit of a connoisseur of cathedrals, can turn what might otherwise seem a crushing bore into a vital, engrossing interlude, can make you look forward with eagerness to your next encounter with that architectural highlight of the Middle Ages.

(You’re not interested in cathedrals, you say? Then why are you going to Europe?)

Continuing the analogy, a large part of your European trip will also be consumed in visits to museums of art: the Louvre and the National Gallery in Paris and London, the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna, the Prado in Madrid. Unless you have prepared yourself for the experience, how can you really appreciate those visits? Jensen’s classic “History of Western European Art” will place matters into perspective, refresh the memory of your college studies, give you the tools to enjoy the early church art that fills so large a portion of Europe’s museums and is often hard to comprehend without a scholar’s help.

But it’s not only the past for which you prepare yourself. A visitor to Scandinavia benefits enormously from Marquis Childs’ “Sweden: The Middle Way,” a contemporary book that deals with the history of that area’s social experimentation in the Twentieth century, and enables you to talk intelligently on the subject with the many English-speaking Scandinavians you meet on a trip there.

Asia needs even more advance reading. I’m astonished when I meet Americans en route to Thailand or Hong Kong or Japan who have not first spent at least a few hours in a public library, reading about religions of the Far East. How can they react intelligently to a single shrine or temple, the continuing rituals all around them on city streets and in homes, the Buddhist priests in their saffron robes, the early morning begging bowls and the local population’s response to that socially-sanctioned practice? In continents whose culture differs so markedly from that of the West, the uninformed tourist will fail to derive ninety-five percent of the enjoyment that could have been theirs had they arrived prepared.

Why do we leave on such trips so unprepared, and therefore so confused? It is because we assume that someone at the destination—a tour leader, a lecturer—will later be telling us what it is that we are looking at.

But that doesn’t work. To people dazed by the first sights of a foreign land, all the lectured commentaries simply add to the confusion. Without an advance framework for understanding, there is no comprehension of unfamiliar concepts and histories. One king sounds like another, one god like all the rest. Only reading, done calmly and in advance of departure, not during it, can lay the basis for a successful trip.

If for no other reason than to fill the long hours of an overseas flight, the smart traveler should always bring a thick, heavy volume of history into the plane. Throughout those interminable 15 hours to Australia, Robert Hughes’ 680-page history, “The Fatal Shore,” is not only a great read, but an indispensable explanation of what made Australia the country it is today. To destinations ranging from Hawaii to Alaska to the Caribbean, the historical novels of James Michener are not simply the light sort of reading that fits well with a long airplane journey, but provide you with vital background understanding of what you will soon be touring.

Better books obviously contribute even more. I shall always be grateful to an intensive, week-long course in Thuycidides’ “The Peloponnesian War” for its contribution to my travels through that peninsular landmass to the west of Athens. I bless Antonia Fraser for her works—both novels and anthologies—on the Queens of England, that have so aided my understanding of historical sights of Britain. And I could never have had the same reactions to African societies, had it not been for my early readings in the great novels of Nigeria’s contemporary Chinua Achebe. The single most effective route to better travel is through your public library or a travel bookstore, where all the books mentioned above are found.


The “Savvy Traveller’s list of advance reading for travel was prepared for this Web site by Sandye Wexler, proprietor of The Savvy Traveller in Chicago—that’s the city’s major bookstore devoted exclusively to travel. A highly impressive institution, The Savvy Traveller carries not simply guidebooks and histories, travel accounts and language materials, but maps and travel videos, luggage, backpacks and all manner of travel accessories. Literally, you find everything here for travel, other than tickets.

The location? At 310 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60604, phone 312/913-9800 or 888/666-6200, fax 312/913-9866, Web:

The setting? One of evocative wall murals of travel scenes that frame well-lit bookshelves, maps, large photography books, and three-dimensional architectural puzzles near kiosks filled with accessories and luggage.

Any of the books in The Savvy Traveller’s list may be purchased not simply in the store itself, but by mail order. Simply enclose an additional payment for shipping as follows: Under $20, $4.75; $20 to $34.99, $5.75; $35 to $49.99, $6.75; $50 to $74.99, $8.75; $75.00 and over, $10.75. Books will be shipped on the day your order is received. Obviously, in addition to the books listed below, The Savvy Traveler can provide you with any other travel book, travel guide, or travel product.

To see the recommended reading list the Savvy Traveller has prepared for our readers, please click here.


The “Book Passage” List of advance reading for travel was prepared by Elaine and Bill Petrocelli, owners of “Book Passage” in Corte Madera, California (just outside San Francisco). Book Passage is one of the largest travel bookstores in the United States, in addition to carrying a range of other books.

Since its beginnings as a mail-order travel book service two decades ago, Book Passage has evolved into a community bookstore located just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. While the store serves all reading needs, travel books are still a main focus and guide books, maps, language tapes, and travel literature occupy over 4,000 square feet of the store. Moreover, travel is broadly defined at Book Passage, so the staff is likely to draw upon books from the store’s history, biography, fiction, mystery and other sections that are travel related and that might enhance a traveler’s understanding of some future destination. In addition, the store hosts many travel-related events and readings, including the annual Book Passage Travel Writers’ Conference.

To order any of the books listed below, you can either click on the URL below each listing (which will connect you with Book Passage’s web site, and ordering forms), phone Book Passage at 800/999-7909 or send a message to

You can also browse the Book Passage travel lists or search for a book on the search engine at, or at its more extensive list of travel-related books at All orders in the U.S. are shipped freight free, and Book Passage maintains a strict privacy policy with respect to customer information.

Here are a few books recommended by the Book Passage staff in the past:


When in Rome: Journal of Life in Vatican City
by Robert J. Hutchinson $12.95

This lively memoir of the Vatican by “an aspiring if not very successful sinner” will have you grinning, chuckling and finally laughing out loud. Hutchinson decides to move with his family to Rome to explore the Holy See in depth, and he manages to do so despite all the roadblocks that clerical bureaucrats throw in his path. Hutchinson writes with an irreverent reverence that will pull you up short at every turn.

Dublin Pub Life & Lore: An Oral History
by Kevin C. Kearns $15.95

Who can resist a book like this?
“The most coveted social niche in the life of many Dubliners is their status as a “regular” in their local pub ... The pub setting is like a stage with a cast of characters each acting out his natural role. Be they philosopher, wag, wit, grouser, political pundit or mere listener all are welcome in the conversational circle. Gregarious cronies cluster in cliques to discuss and dissect sports, politics, literature, local happenings, world events and the general state of mankind. All are treated with equal solemnity or frivolity depending upon the prevailing mood of the moment”

Italy for the Gourmet Traveler
by Fred Plotkin $22.95

This book is packed with more than 700 pages of restaurant reviews, favorite recipes, wine shops, local food vendors, olive oil producers, food museums, food glossaries, and local cafes. Plotkin knows Italy and Italian cooking, and he has a nice easy way of writing about it. We know some veteran travelers who won’t go to Italy without their copy close at hand.

The World of Venice
by Jan Morris $15.00

Jan Morris sets the standard for writing travel essays, and you’ll never find better historical writing than in this brilliant meditation on Venice and its history. It was originally written in 1960 and updated twice since then. Many books claim to be timeless; this one really is.

Cotswold Walks $14.95

Our favorite guide to the Cotswolds. The 28 color-coded routes come complete with Ordnance Survey maps, detailed directions, highlights and refreshment stops. This is good for walking, cycling or driving.

Guide to Impressionist Paris
by Patty Lurie $24.95

A unique way to see Paris: traveling in the footsteps of the impressionists. This guide allows you to discover the exact location that inspired the original artist. Lurie includes both the paintings and a photo of the current location. While the city has changed, it is surprising how much remains the same.


Guide to Southern Africa Game and Nature Reserves
by Chris & Tilde Stuart $24.95

This guidebook lists more than 400 nature reserves and it gives enough detail to help you plan a trip. Chris & Tilde Stuart have extensive experience in Africa, and that experience shows in this detailed book. It includes information about access routes, accommodations, facilities, and times of operation. It has plenty of maps and 30 pages of color photos.


San Francisco: Travelers’ Tales Guide
By James O’Reilly, Larry Habegger & Sean O’Reilly $17.95

This book is a stand-out in the wonderful series of traveler’ tales, reminiscences, and stories compiled by the editors of the Travelers’ Tales. We see San Francisco through the eyes of Ambrose Bierce, Mark Childress, Linda Watanabe McFerrin, Harold Gilliam, Barnaby Conrad, Herb Caen and many others.

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
by Bill Bryson $25.00 (cheaper in paperback)

Bryson sees everything : the details of the trail, the oddities of local towns, the depredations of the environment, the follies of local construction. But mostly he sees the people, and in so doing he doesn’t miss a social nuance. Bryson takes what could be a tedious trek and turns it into an exercise in sustained humor


Pass the Butterworms: Remote Journeys Oddly Rendered
By Tim Cahill $13.00

Tim Cahill has done it again. This delightful collection of tales about some of the World’s most wild and wonderful places rivals his earlier popular books, such as Jaguars Ripped My Flesh and A Wolverine is Eating My Leg. Cahill is like one of his wolverines: he sinks his teeth into a story and won’t let loose of it until he has milked it for every hilarious detail.