What books reveal about a place before you go, while you’re there, and after you’ve left
As we drove up the West Coast of New Zealand together, we realized we couldn’t have chosen a better time of year to be there. September, the beginning of spring in the Southern Hemisphere, meant cool but crisp days, clear skies, few tourists, and lower hotel rates. This was certainly the case in the township of Hokitika as we walked along a quiet stretch of beach at sunset, ate dinner at the most popular pizzeria in town without any need to wait for a table, and found a steal of an Airbnb at a one-night farmstay about 10 minutes outside of town.
When we arrived for our check-in well after dark, we were greeted by the host, his daughter, a dog, and a lamb. The single-room guest house was rustic and somewhat chilly, but a space heater and couple of blankets kept us all warm. In the morning, we awoke to a rooster crowing and the sun streaming through sliding doors. We drank tea and ate cereal sitting on a porch overlooking a lemon tree and several sheep grazing on a verdant knoll.
The property owner wandered over to chat a while before we left, and our conversation turned toward local history. As well as advising us on a beautiful northern route past the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks, he found a book he recommended from an exhaustive collection stacked along the bedside wall: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, recipient of the 2013 Man Booker Prize.
Whenever I’ve traveled solo over the years, I’ve made a point to purchase and read local literature before any international trips. While living in San Francisco, I made regular pilgrimages to Browser Books. In New York, I typically sought my travel accompaniments from the shelves of McNally Jackson and Idlewild Books. I pick up nonfiction and poetry too, but there’s something about fiction that allows for an accessible entry point into almost any place and time.
Reading before traveling helps conjure an initial sense of your destination: the landscape, the language, celebrations of culture as well as critiques, insight into history and its troubles, details revealed in what isn’t said as much as what is. But since Eliza’s birth last year, although I’ve thankfully been able to read even more, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to plan my book selections ahead of time—especially during our travels. And so back we go to New Zealand.
As we set off from Hokitika for Nelson and then left the South Island behind via ferry from Picton to Wellington, Cathlin gave me a birthday gift a few days early: my very own copy of The Luminaries. At a whopping 848 pages, at least as a paperback from Victoria University Press, the novel was a rather hefty but memorable addition to our luggage.
A work of historical fiction, The Luminaries takes place amidst the West Coast Gold Rush in New Zealand during the 1860s. A great mystery, with whiffs of conspiracy, unfurls as twelve men gathered secretly in a hotel bar recount their stories after a new arrival in Hokitika departs his stranded ship following a grueling and fearful passage from Dunedin on the other side of the South Island. In all, a total of nineteen characters cross paths through a layered plot involving their rises and falls, personal and professional allegiances, the opium trade, political ambition, colonialism, and murder. I was carried along from the first page, pulled in as I sipped a coffee while Eliza napped in her stroller beside me on the InterIslander ferry.
As I worked my way through one chapter after another in The Luminaries after leaving Hokitika, I thought about how Cathlin had purchased Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame at Shakespeare & Co. while we were in Paris and how that reading informed our time there as well.
If we had read either novel in full before our respective travels, I’m confident we still wouldn’t have imagined present-day Hokitika as a gold-rush town or Notre-Dame Cathedral solely as Quasimodo’s domain. Still, just as reading before traveling to that destination can deepen your sense of anticipation, so too can it leave you with a predetermined set of expectations, whereas reading about somewhere soon after you’ve left can help make sense of what you’ve seen.
As I followed the twists and turns of The Luminaries, the landscape I pictured was informed by the sea, the rivers, and the forests we’d already seen. As the narrative ventures to the Chinese outpost in the hills beyond Hokitika and explores the hopes and entrenched discrimination faced by two of the main characters, I reflected on the isolated gold-mining huts we’d seen at the Arrowtown Chinese Settlement much further south and the long-overlooked struggles of an immigrant community whose deep roots and experiences in the area are far less recognized.
The more invested I became in the book, the more intrigued I was about Hokitika itself. And even though I turned the last page in a hotel room in California a few weeks after starting, I couldn’t help but feel transported back to that one-night farmstay that introduced us to the novel.
If you’re planning your own upcoming travels, I’d argue there’s no wrong time to expand your reading list. Whether you choose to do so before you go, while you’re there, or after you’ve left, consider how that might inform your expectations of the place and your understanding of the text.
Of course, any single book or author, no matter how celebrated or encompassing, is able to reveal only so much about a place. If you were to visit New York City as a tourist, you would never assume that any single classic or best-seller alone could tell you all you need to know about the place, so don’t be tempted to think that reading one book by one author written at one point in time sufficiently explains an entire community or country, no matter how much you enjoy it.
But that’s still a far better problem than not to have made any attempt at all. And the solution sounds rather ideal: more travel and more reading.