Faced with the cancellation of her book tour, a writer turns to books that evoke a sense of place — and recommends 8 books that might take you somewhere, too.
At the beginning of March, I experienced a new joy: I published my first book, a collection of essays investigating how Americans make meaning of their lives and what they do when their systems of meaning-making begin to break down.
This book was roughly seven years in the making. In writing it, I did quite a bit of traveling through America: I went to a Shaker colony in Maine; I flew down to Laredo to attend a borderlands debutante ball where the girls dress up to honor George and Martha Washington; I frequented autopsy suites in Cleveland; I drove out to a dust bowl in California. But mostly, I sat alone in my room and wrote.
Writing a book is fundamentally a solitary and stationary exercise. Some people are naturally good at this. I am not naturally good at this: I like movement and adventure and collaboration. I love the part of my job that puts me in contact with new places and people. I found writing a book to be many pleasurable things; I also found it lonely.
So I was looking forward to what came next: the travel and socializing that comes with book promotion. This was supposed to be the time of unloneliness, of planes and trains, a brief interval of movement and people and conversation, hugging and discourse. Once the book is out, it is the job of the writer to be with people, to be in the world for a little while before going back to the quiet of the desk. This has become impossible.
The challenges and anxieties of authors shepherding books into the world pale before the ravages of a global pandemic. Nothing puts a professional disappointment into perspective like worrying about the health and safety of your loved ones. Still, the writers I know — in between calling their older relatives and fetching groceries for immunocompromised neighbors — are reeling in reaction to canceled book tours and the grief of knowing that something you have worked so hard on may miss its chance to find an audience. There is uncertainty about the future of our industry, and all industries. Strangest to me is finding myself at home still, pacing the same old floor, now joined in this stationary, solitary routine by everyone I know.
Spring seems like a particularly strange time to be told to sit still indoors because it’s normally a season of so much blooming, coming out of hibernation, gathering together, maypoles, celebrations, graduations. This is typically the season in which we open our windows, exit our homes and re-enter the world, go on spring break, plan summer travel. It feels like an unnatural time to be forced back inside and to reduce our perimeters of movement to our own houses, traversing only the path to the grocery store or pharmacy.
In the past few days, sitting at a table near a window and looking out at a row of peony buds slowly pushing up from the blank ground, I’ve been flipping through books, which is how I rediscovered this passage from “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Betty Smith’s 1943 novel about a girl growing up in Williamsburg in the first two decades of the 20th century:
From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.
This passage reminds me of why I read as a child: So much of childhood involved boredom, lying on the rug on my stomach — as I am right now — wishing I could see more of the vast world than was available to me as a 7-year-old. The reason I fell in love with books is that they were a passport to other places and lives. Books mimicked travel. In a book, I could go anywhere and be anyone. I haven’t read with that primary motivation in a long time, but it feels especially attractive again.
Now, for whatever undetermined period of time this will be, I am in a house with five other people and a dog. There’s a ladybug infestation in the house; our stillness is made more noticeable by their motion and endless proliferation, by the constant fluttering of wings. It hasn’t even been a week and we’re already bored, lying on the floor, reaching for books.
ALASKA, CALIFORNIA, NEW MEXICO, CHILE, MEXICO
“A Manual for Cleaning Women,” Lucia Berlin
Berlin’s posthumous collection of short stories offer a portrait of the mid-20th century West through the eyes of young women (many of them based on Berlin herself) living through extraordinary circumstances.
“Justine,” Lawrence Durrell
This is the first novel of Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet,” and introduces the tetralogy’s primary love affair — between two people, and between a man and a city.
TRINIDAD; NEW YORK; WILTSHIRE, ENGLAND
“The Enigma of Arrival,” V.S. Naipaul
This semi-autobiographical novel follows Naipaul’s peripatetic life as he navigates the experience of being a newcomer, observer and outsider in places far from his home of origin.
“Watermark,” Joseph Brodsky
This paean to Venice — part notebook, part prose poem — is composed in vignettes of two decades of winters Brodsky spent there.
“The Mountains Sing,” Nguyen Phan Que Mai
This debut novel from the Vietnamese poet Nguyen Phan Que Mai follows multiple generations of a family through the political tumult of 20th-century Vietnam.
“Holy the Firm,” by Annie Dillard
A hallucinatory, eerily beautiful account of two years of relative isolation on an island in the Pacific Northwest.
BUDAPEST; JARKOVAC, SERBIA
“Abigail,” Magda Szabó
DICTIONOPOLIS, THE DOLDRUMS, THE CASTLE IN THE AIR
“The Phantom Tollbooth,” Norton Juster
Not a real location, but this children’s chapter book about young Milo’s quest to rescue and reinstate the exiled Princesses Rhyme and Reason to the troubled Kingdom of Wisdom is the perfect voyage novel, and the imagined world it evokes is so vivid, complete and clever that it feels like genuine travel.