Going traveling, either for a short stay somewhere or a round the world trip, means one thing to me: reading. Sometimes, it’s nice to sit back and pick up a trashy novel suitable for the poolside, but there are times when a great cultural read can not only provide some intellectual stimulation but can also give cultural insights that might otherwise be missed.
Below are our top ten cultural holiday reads:
The Magus, John Fowles
A sublimely strange novel that you’ll want to reread as soon as you’ve finished it, The Magus is set on a Greek island in the early twentieth century. The novel is full of suspense and magic, with richly drawn characters, and the landscape of the island is an important one of these characters. If you’re travelling to a Greek island, or even to the beaches of the Greek mainland, throw yourself into the world of The Magus, with its dappled sunlit woodlands and crystal clear seas.
Marching Powder, Rusty Young
Set in the San Pedro prison, this book both inspired people to visit Bolivia in the first place, and inspired them to step foot in the prison for a visit once they’d arrived (sadly you can no longer bribe your way in here for a visit!). The book is set against a background of culturally accepted corruption, bringing you remarkably close to an understanding of the way of life for so many of the poor in Bolivian society. This is a must-read for anyone heading to Bolivia or that neck of the woods.
The Old Man and The Sea, Ernest Hemingway
Whilst I would recommend reading this book off the Gulf of Mexico in Florida in order to understand the motivation for Hemingway to pen this story, it can of course be read in any area where you might stray into a local fishing village. This is a tale of how culturally vital the sea is, and how cruel a mistress she can also choose to be. This is a brilliant book, but not one to read if you want to be cheered up!
A Bend in the River, V.S. Naipaul
Best read if you’re staying in the heart of Africa, this book captures both the romanticism and the difficulties of post-colonial Africa. A wide range of viewpoints on African history are commented on in this novel, in its own way a social commentary on this sort of society at a certain point in time. Whilst it was award the Nobel Prize In Literature, it is immensely readable and a real page-turner suitable for a holiday.
Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami
This metaphysical novel from Murakami focuses on themes common to his novels such as growing up in Japanese society, Japanese religious traditions, and isolation. Although many of Murakami’s novels make for perfect holiday reads, if you’re heading to Japan on holiday, you just have to take this book with you. If you finish this one and want to try more Murakami, try Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
A Gift of Rain, Tan Twan Eng
Set in Penang, this is a must-read for anyone heading to Malaysia on holiday. The novel’s protagonist is of Chinese-English heritage and, with the novel set just before and during the Japanese invasion, it’s clear that the story here packs as much of a cultural punch as it does a readable, gripping plot-line. This is another novel where the landscape plays a huge role in the background of the story, adding real depth to the characters’ various plights.
The World According to Garp, John Irving
If you’re heading to New England in the States, you could read any one of John Irving’s fantastic novels and get a real sense of what the place is all about. The World According to Garp is a good starting point if you’re new to John Irving, though, with this novel focusing on themes as varied as feminism, gender issues, sexuality, and pain and death against the mundane backdrop of daily life in New England. A comic read that has its fair share of dark moments, this is a classic page-turner of a novel.
The Diary Of A Young Girl, Anne Frank
A tragic, horrible reminder of a time that should never be forgotten all told through the eyes of a young girl. This is a must-read if you visit the house in Amsterdam where Anne and her family hid. It provides an emotive idea of the brutal nature of the Nazi occupation of Europe and helps you to understand how profoundly modern culture has been changed by this awful period in world history.
Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts
Though perhaps not as historically accurate as it claims to be, Shantaram gives readers a wonderful insight into the customs, culture and life inside some of the least accessible (for outsiders anyway) slums of Mumbai. Captivating and entertaining, you get a real sense of the daily lives of the local people. This book is a must read for anyone lucky enough to be traveling through India who isn’t just looking for a bit of lazy beach time near Goa!
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
The great American novel is a debate that can go on for hours. Whilst this novel is not one that sits nicely with the wonderful ads that portray California as a state drenched in sun, sea and surfers, the novel gives a moving account of some of the more difficult times America has faced. Hard to read for many reasons, this book can hardly even claim to have a ‘satisfying’ ending but it will leave you with an impression of the profound impact the Great Depression had on America and its modern culture.
These are only some of our thoughts. Please let us know your picks for a great cultural holiday read by commenting below!
Categories: Travel Tips