If you’re going to travel to Cairo, should you read a book from there first? Will it make you a “better” traveler? Will it make you a “better” person when you return to your home, wherever that may be?
Certainly, it depends on what we mean by a “better traveler.” For the most part, when this question arrives, I assume we mean “more moral” and not simply “more competent.” As Shahnaz Habib writes in her essay below, “Travel is a self-improvement project that has been sold to us as a world-improvement project.”
Indeed, Habib is surely right: reading books can absolutely make you a better traveler. Guidebooks are useful. Fiction might give you some idea what authors find remarkable (or not worth noting) about the landscapes they describe; you might find some useful context you wouldn’t otherwise have known. You might discover a way of more richly or usefully interacting with this place in which you have found yourself at a conference…or work project…or holiday.
To whit: If you’re going to Petra and don’t read Amjad Nasser’s poetry chapbook of the same name — in the original or in any of the translations, but most especially Fady Joudah’s — well, what a loss! Your experience of Petra will be shrunk. You will know so much less of the history, the setting, the emotional landscape. You will see a silent and flattened version of the landscape; it won’t whisper to you; it won’t laugh or cry.
When invited to write this essay, I wish I had taken the opportunity to tell you why you should read Petra.
Alas, I find myself endlessly drawn into the question of whether printed books make us better people (no), perhaps because the narrative that literacy makes for “better” people is so obnoxiously present. Underneath the sweeping lament that “Arabs don’t read” is the tsk-tsking that “if only Arabs read, then.”
In any case, the four essays below — from what WWB calls “wildly different perspectives” — respond to the question: Can international literature make us better travelers?
The Reader’s Openness to the Unfamiliar
by Emmanuel Iduma
On the “Good” in “Good Traveler”
by Shahnaz Habib