Once upon a time, the world was filled with people travelling across the world, from country to country, and basking in a variety of cultures and experiences. But one day, a nasty virus came and shut everything down. We had to hide away inside, and watch the world slowly change.
When this travelling stopped so suddenly, we had to find a new way to explore the world through entertainment and the arts. One place we turned to was books. Jhumpa Lahiri once wrote, ‘That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.’ This sentiment is relevant all the time, but more so during these COVID times. We can travel via books without leaving the safety of our homes during lockdowns and restrictions. Whilst this might make us miss travelling, the experience, at least for me, has been richer and imaginative. It has had a power that no other reading has ever seemed to have.
We read to escape, and to find a new way of thinking. During COVID times, I have travelled across the world, through time and to places beyond the known world. It has allowed me to imagine a 2020 without COVID in one instance, and to experience an exhibition that even under ordinary circumstances, I would have little chance of getting to experience.
I have travelled across Europe with Freja Peachtree and Tobias Appleby in The Girl, the Dog and the Writer series. I’ve been to Rome for gelato, Provence for cakes and pastry and merry-go-round rides, and Lucerne to see the alps, meet marmots and eat chocolate in a castle, all while a crime writer does research for his books with the willing residents of each place helping him.
These three books, published in a pre-COVID world in 2019, allowed me to travel to these places, and to live in the world. They are filled with colourful and richly imagined characters and settings. I felt like I was there, tasting the food and experiencing the villages and solving crimes with Freja, chasing Finnegan the Irish Wolfhound, and writing with Tobias.
Books can take us anywhere, and I’ve also travelled back in time, to nineteenth century Egypt with The Mummy Smugglers of Crumblin Castle by Pamela Rushby, where I spent time in Egypt and England during the 1860s. Each setting was rich and vibrant, and like the previous series discussed, allowed me to travel to a new world, and to a place untouched by COVID.
I’ve also experienced a 2020 without COVID, in a book that was written and set for publication several months before the pandemic hit. I read this book during the first lockdown back in April, and admittedly, at first, it was a touch jarring to read about people touching and not socially or physically distancing in 2020. After a while, though, it felt like it was another world. What could have been. And perhaps that’s what books like this set in 2020 in a COVID-free world can offer. We can time travel, in a sense, to a 2020 without COVID. It is odd, and alien, yet at the same time a sort of comfort. Seeing what this year could have been can give hope to readers that things will get better. The book that did this for me was Jane in Love by Rachel Givney, which I also reviewed for the Jane Austen Society of Australia.
Using reading to travel also allows me to explore exhibitions that I might not be able to see in person. This year, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London was going to have an Alice in Wonderland exhibit, which has been rescheduled due to COVID. Under ordinary circumstances, I wouldn’t have been able to get to London to see it, but what made receiving the exhibition guide for Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser from Bloomsbury special, was not just being able to experience the exhibition, but being able to do so during a pandemic, because it cast a spell over an isolated world, and not only did it allow me to travel through the ever-changing world of Alice, but back to London, and feel like I was in a museum. It would be interesting to see if these kinds of exhibitions also offer an online visit for people who can’t get to museum, in the same way that book clubs and author meet-ups or book launches and bookstores have adapted deliveries, gone online via Facebook and Zoom and many other inventive ways to keep the literary landscape alive.
We won’t be doing much travel for a while, until we can get this pandemic under control, and even then, it will dramatically change – how travel changes is yet to be seen. For now, we can use books to travel. The above examples are just a few that have highlighted the power of books to let us wander the world and beyond that I have read so far this year. There have been many and listing them all would be quite a task. Each book offers a different journey. A different life to live and a different place to see. Books create travel and inspiration. Literary tourism is one way to travel for now, so go forth and see the world via books.