Travel Pairings: Literature & lodging in Catalunya, Spain

What to read before making a trip to Catalunya, Spain—the region that includes Barcelona.

When I begin planning to visit a new destination, my thoughts turn first to literature. Oh, I always skim a guidebook or two, and I do the now obligatory stroll through TripAdvisor and Google’s offerings, but I go places to try to understand them. I want to get a sense of the gestalt of the community.

Who are these people? How has the local culture evolved? Why does a visit here offer up its particular sounds, tastes, and experiences?

For a bookworm like me, the answers—or at least, the first teasing tastes of truth—come most readily via literature. Whether the perspective of a book is that of an insider or a sojourner in a foreign land, the contours of the place begin to take shape as I delve into its stories.

What I read before visiting Barcelona

Black Bread by Emili Teixidor

Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas R. Hicks

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (skimmed)

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti

Major Themes: Spanish Civil War and man’s relationship with food

I began my exploration of Catalan culture with one of the few novels I could find translated from that language: the award winning Black Bread. Here is a great work of literature, evocatively written, even in translation. It was a lovely read, and I enjoyed it immensely, but I do love a heavy novel bursting with symbolism, deeper meaning, and complex themes. I.e., this isn’t a beach read.

Spain Catalan book quote Black Bread - 1And here is some of what I noticed about the intersection of Spain and Travel: so very many people seem to think only of the hedonistic pleasures of warm sand and tapas when they contemplate a visit to the region. My visits have all been in late fall or winter, and my interests tend toward museums and history, so take my reckoning with that grain of salt. Continue reading

Children’s books that made me who I am

Many of us read frequently, seemingly constantly, in childhood. Assuming there were lots of re-reads, and an average of finishing a few books a week for the decade between literacy and the teenage years, let’s call that about 1500 books read.

10 years x 52 weeks/year = 520 weeks

3 books/week x 520 weeks = 1560 books

The math is there for those of us who automatically calculate the numbers every time we read a blog post or news story anyway…

So we read a couple thousand books in childhood, but I think we all know a secret:

Not every book mattered.

How many books are there from your childhood that still sneak out and surprise you on occasion? There are those we couldn’t bear to let our own kids miss out on, and others we swoon to imagine them reading. (Or maybe only degenerates, or prudes, like me read stuff at that age that still brings up a blush?)

I still find myself caught up short in the middle of my day by distinct memories of scenes from books I otherwise can’t recall. There was a book with catfish crossing a street, but that’s all I remember…

Little House on the Prairie

I don’t believe I would be the woman I am today if it weren’t for some books. The Little House on the Prairie series comes immediately to mind. I know I read it over 50 times, and once re-read the entire series (minus the upsetting locust chapters) on one winter snow day.

1984

I think 1984 is the book that took my innocence. You’ll find that listed on my all time favorites book list, too, but it’s a bittersweet favorite. It kindled my dark fascination with dystopian fiction, and perhaps colored my worldview more than it should have.

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies was the novel that made me realize a great book was literally a great book, not a teacher’s great excuse to annoy kids.

The Melendy family books, beginning with The Saturdays

The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright (of the Melendy family series) is one I’m joyfully sharing with DS2 right now.

Picture books

My mother tells me that my first favorite book was Whose Mouse Are You? (Kraus) I remember Corduroy (Freeman) and The Snowy Day (Keats) from those early years, too.

There must have been early readers in my youth, but none of them left an imprint.

My grade school memories of reading include a sense of outrage at the red-taped-line between the lower two shelves (for first and second graders) and the better range of books above. I discovered, and adored, the “real” Mary Poppins (Travers) books, The Story of Doctor Dolittle (Lofting), and James and the Giant Peach (Dahl). I remember devouring every available reference book about holidays and celebrations in other countries and the one Spanish language book on my elementary school library’s shelf.

By upper elementary, I’d moved on to Agatha Christie and the selection of Reader’s Digest Classics my parents had on hand, in part just to provide the bulk of reading matter I required, but also due to a fascination I still have with British drawing room culture and The World as it Was (Before the War(s)?)

Somehow, I’ve ended up listing all the classics on every list, but perhaps there is a reason they are so popular. I can remember titles for a few non-classic titles:

The Girl with Silver Eyes (Roberts)

Key to the Treasure (Parish)

Behind the Attic Wall (Cassidy)

Are these great books? I couldn’t say. They still stand out, thirty years later, as memorable books, and there’s something to be said for that.

Books that change the contours of my mind

  • 1984 by George Orwell

  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

  • The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

  • The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

  • The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

  • An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

  • The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Listed in roughly the order I experienced them, these are extraordinary novels that had a profound effect upon my very understanding of the world. They stand out as “the greatest books I’ve ever read.”

It’s telling that most of the titles were read in or before young adulthood. Is youth simply more open to seismic shifts of consciousness, or did my good education expose me to a spectrum of great writing, exactly when and as it should?

The closest I’ve come in recent memory to a reading experience as paradigm-altering as these was non-fiction:

  • The Little LISPer by Daniel P. Friedman and Matthias Felleisen

While I still read novels for pleasure almost every day, this does reflect a trend I’ve observed in my life.

As a child, my discretionary reading was primarily fiction. As an adult, the majority of my selections seem to be non-fiction. Six of the seven books I have out from the library today are non-fiction titles. My Kindle is filled primarily with novels, bought and borrowed, so this may not be a representative sample of all my reading, but, when I consider the mental effort I put into reading these days, I do feel as though  it is non-fiction that provides most the gear-grinding heft of deep thought and hard work.

Sometimes I think that a lifetime spent enjoying wonderful writing has simply raised the bar for what qualifies as “a good book,” making great novels ever harder to find. Believe me, I’m still actively looking for one every time I visit Amazon.com or the local library. A non-fiction title need only offer new information in a palatable form to warrant at least a browse, if not a thorough read.

Is a shift from fiction to non-fiction a natural side effect of maturity, reflecting adult values and responsibilities? Or could my self-imposed exile from the world of intellectually demanding technical work to the domestic sphere and full-time parenting be the weightier factor here?

How have your reading choices changed as you’ve grown?