In Praise of the Reading List: How Books Enhance Travel and Vice Versa

29 Sep In Praise of the Reading List: How Books Enhance Travel and Vice Versa

I flip to the first page of The Order of Days, a book by David Stuart about the intricacies of the Mayan calendar. This isn’t the sort of book I’d normally choose; save for a repeat viewing of the movie 2012, I ignored the end-of-days hoopla so prevalent in the media last year. My thought on apocalypses is this: You should live each day to the fullest, regardless of whether or not the world is going to end (and if it is, you can’t do much about it anyway).

Suitcase Full of Books

No, my interest in the Itza Empire stems from the fact that I’ll be boarding a small ship in Central America soon, sailing roundtrip from Belize City to Guatemala. The tour that I’m taking focuses on the archaeology of the Mayans, as well as the region’s abundant bird and wildlife; the packed itinerary promises daily lectures in addition to the excursions. Within its packet of paperwork, itineraries and suggested gear, the company sent one of my favorite things: a recommended reading list.

Nothing plays to my inner geek more than a book challenge. I’ve always been this way; as a kid, I made lists of stories read over summer vacation and entered contests sponsored by the local library, usually placing within the top 10. In college, I went beyond the required reading to the optional material, and still sought out authors that had nothing to do with the classroom. Tour leader friends tell me that there’s usually one person on their trip who knows more than they do – or thinks they do. Sometimes, I admit, that jerk is me.

(To be fair, a certain amount of obnoxiousness comes with being a reporter. You can’t ask good questions if you haven’t done your prep work. Still, nothing drives me nuts more than a tour guide who refuses to answer your queries. I’d rather hear “I don’t know” than get a brush off. Guide in Basel, I’m talking to you.)

Not every vacation requires such research, of course. By definition, a family trip to Orlando doesn’t carry the same intellectual heft as touring ancient Egypt (although if you are really interested in the Disney empire, read Once Upon an American Dream by Andy Lainsbury). Chick lit, true crime, pot boilers: There’s a reason why these genres sell so well in airports. Vacation means escape, most of the time.

Yet the right book can enhance a trip, even if it stirs unpalatable thoughts. On the long flight to Easter Island, I started reading Collapse by anthropologist Jared Diamond, which discusses why some civilizations succeed, while others fail. The tome contains a chapter on the Rapa Nui, the Polynesian people who created the moai, the gigantic stone heads placed on the edge of the earth. His research suggests that the moai stand as evidence of a people with misplaced priorities, who sought status over survival. Reading the book changed my outlook for the entire trip; I saw them as monuments to hubris, rather than mysterious or other-worldly.

Mayan civilization has facets that require years of in-depth study. I’ll learn very little by the time I board my ship (although I’m already fascinated by Stuart’s hypothesis that the Mayan respect for their calendar and its prophecies hastened their acquiescence to the Spanish). I do know that attention paid to the reading list will result in a better experience, overall. I’ll listen more carefully to the instructors; look more thoughtfully at my surroundings. Studying your destination turns you from a spectator into a thinker, an active learner instead of a passive participant. It’s an investment in your overall experience.

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Chris Gray Faust
Chris Gray Faust is the former travel editor at USA Today and the creator of the award-winning blog Chris Around The World. A journalist for 20 years, Chris has worked as a reporter and editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, in addition to USA Today. She writes for numerous outlets, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Budget Travel, Frommer’s, Gadling, Cruise Critic, the Independent Traveler and USA Today premium publications. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
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