A Character-Driven Map: Pairing Reading and Travel

I visited friends in Louisiana this month, back on the Gulf Coast for the first time since I left Tallahassee in 2014. Ahead of the trip—we spent time in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Lafayette—several now-fellow New Yorkers asked if I’d be revisiting Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men beforehand. I didn’t, though I do wish I had—we passed by several landmarks of Warren’s time in Baton Rouge, and of course Huey Long’s fingerprints were everywhere. But I did read, at my hosts’ recommendation, Nine Lives by Dan Baum—a braided history of New Orleans centering on Hurricane Katrina. This excellent book became its own set of annotations on our time in the city, a character-driven map layer of streets, bars, and even homes that gave me a way to feel I had my feet under me in a city a barely knew. In a literal sense, we were being shown around Louisiana by a local friend—but it felt doubly so, with Baum’s book sparking in my memory.

The trip mapped reading material over landscape in another way as well, more atmospheric than exact and much more accidental—by the cosmic magic of inter-library loan timing, the day before our flight I began reading Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. Already wading through a swampy nostalgia of memories of the time I spent living in the Southeast, I ended up reading Ward and looking up at chapter breaks to see cypress swamps or live oaks furred with resurrection fern. I’d spin out again, overwhelmed by the pairing of fiction and landscape, both new to me.

I talked some with the friends I was visiting about the phenomenon and heard their own examples—most notable reading John Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven while traveling in Utah, an experience that sparked a deep and enduring fascinated with Mormonism in one friend. It put me in mind of the work I used to do with The Common, the collaborative maps we’d make at AWP with passers-by pinning the settings of their favorite books. It was always fascinating to see where these locations matched or deviated from the pinners’ hometowns and states. Do we prefer to read about where we’re from, or places we hope to visit—if only through the book itself?

Traveling to the setting of each book as we begin it is, of course, not a logistically sustainable way to read. But this experience has motivated me to try to pair reading—both fiction and nonfiction—with travel whenever possible. And that includes home. I was humbled by the depth of history my Louisianan friends could plumb about their home state, and aware I wouldn’t have been able to match them fact for fact about New York. Who knows, maybe it’s finally time to crack The Power Broker.