Reading up on a place's history, culture, economy etc is a fun part of preparing to visit a new destination, for me at least. I like to skim through a few wikipedia pages, maybe pick up a ye olde dead-tree guide book, and generally familiarise myself with how a place fits into the world. However there is only so much raw data you can cram into your head and a pile of names, facts, figures and dates often does a poor job of conveying the flavour, the essence of a place.
To remedy that I have begun to supplement this factual learning with something less about hard facts and more about conveying spirit. Fiction.
The simplest way I have found to get to grips with a new place is to temporarily abandon non-fiction and read a novel set in the location I am interested in. It may not teach you a lot of facts about the place but it can do a great job of subtly conveying the culture and spirit of the place.
This is all a little hand wavey so perhaps some examples will illustrate what I mean.
Spain - For Whom The Bell Tolls
We recently spent three months exploring Barcelona in Spain. While there I read For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. Published in 1940 it tells the story of a group of men and women fighting in the Spanish civil war (1936 - 1939). It is based on Hemingway's experiences as a journalist in Spain during that war.
The dialog in For Whom The Bell tolls is almost entirely in English and is implied direct translation from Spanish. This imparts an interesting rhythm and flavour. I am unsure how to describe it other than "very Spanish". It is not a language textbook and Hemingway apparently plays fast and loose with translations, prioritising a sense of Spanish-ness over literal correctness.
It is also not a history textbook. It will not teach you the details of the war's causes, major events, eventual outcome and long term impact. It will however give you a window into the spirit, attitudes and outlook of people living through it.
Thailand - The Windup Girl
Published in 2009 and written by Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl is a very different book from For Whom The Bell Tolls. Set in 23rd century Thailand, primarily Bangkok, it depicts a dystopian, desperate world dominated by severe energy shortages, disease and a global food supply almost entirely controlled by a handful of huge corporations (who are not very nice).
During a discussion on reddit Paolo described his inspirations for the book...
Monsanto's Terminator gene. Peak oil. SARS. Thailand in the hot season. A Japanese stewardess on a flight to Japan, wearing a mask against SARS, and with tiny freckles at the corners of her eyes. Global warming. Indians protesting against the patenting of basmati rice genes. Tuberculosis. A bucket bath I took in Calcutta.
Despite being set in the distant future in a world radically different to the one we currently inhabit elements of Thai culture are scattered throughout the book. Indeed, Thai culture plays an important role in the overall arc of the plot.
As a backdrop to the whole sordid tale is Bangkok. Explore the streets of Bangkok, especially at night, and you will recognise the steamy, bustling metropolis described in The Windup Girl. The spirit of this unique mega-city shines through.
These days I make it a habit to seek out a book set wherever I am. It can be an old book or a new one, set in the past or the future. Place trumps time. Doing this has greatly enriched my travel experience and helped me see places with new eyes. Give it a try.