E is for Experiencing

Dante, hell, and reading

Number 5 in The A to Z of the Writer’s Affliction, part of the A to Z blogging challenge.

Writers are readers too, and like all readers, they like to get as full an experience as possible. One way of doing this is to read the book in the place where it is set. Thus, my experience of The Quiet American was greatly enhanced by reading it in Vietnam. Every so often I still take out my copy of the book and flick through the pages, recalling the spot where I bought it from a street hawker in Ho Chi Minh (the Graham Greene estate got nothing, I’m afraid, as the whole book was a photocopy). I could have done the same with Burmese Days, touted in similar fashion in Yangon, but as I’d already read it, I passed. Under The Volcano, though – where better to read it than in the shadow of Popocatepetl? The list could go on: Passage to India, Our Man in Havana, or more recently the wonderful Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer. Closer to home, I’m thinking of reading The Girl on the Train on the 7.32 from Royston to Paddington. Just, you know, to get the full feel of the rumble and clatter, the sweaty commuters, the tut-tutting delays. I may even swig gin while I’m at it.

Of course, it might not always work. I don’t know if Brighton Rock would be improved when read by the Royal Pavilion. And I have my doubts about Anna of the Five Towns – do I really want to visit Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke and Longton? (Wikipedia? Moi? How dare you!) Frankly, I’d also think twice about reading Ulysses in Dublin. What if, yet again, I failed to finish? Dublin’s a lovely city but I don’t think I want to spend the rest of my life there.

Then there are those you definitely wouldn’t want to experience. The Gulag Archipelago? Hmm, no thanks. I’d be up for The Martian Chronicles, though – if Matt Damon can get back, so can I. Being a bit claustrophobic, I wouldn’t read Emma Donoghue’s Room in a tiny basement with a sexual pervert upstairs. Nor do I like submarines. When a giant squid tried to sell me a waterproof copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I shooed it away in no uncertain manner.

I’m sure the brief list here is far from exhausting the possibilities, whether positive or negative. All further contributions are welcome…