I recently met someone who has been to 150 of the 195 United Nations member countries. He’s shortly heading due east to the independent island states in the South Pacific. Once he’s touched down in Tonga, Vanuatu, and their tiny tropical neighbours, the list will have shot up considerably.
It’s fascinating to hear his accounts of the logistics of reaching, say, Iraq, or of how he’s going to navigate trips to the lesser-visited central African nations. I admire this kind of bucket-list manoeuvre. It speaks of commitment, drive, and a desire to understand the endless facets of humans and the world we live in. It is also, I’m afraid, a quest I shan’t be replicating. Nervy incursions into potentially volatile places and tiny planes dropping into far-flung outposts would leave me stricken and reaching for the Valoid. I’m a bit of an unambitious flake like that. Ship me to Casablanca and a nice little hotel, for sure. Whisk me away to Washington for a weekend, with pleasure — but I’ll leave South Sudan to said explorer.
Armchair adventure is more my speed. From the comfort of my bed, and with a charged Kindle, I can set sail to the corners of casbahs and Venezuelan villages, all sans visas and anti-nausea meds. Research reveals that reading “by place” is a method of book selection adored across the globe. The New York Times is especially famous for it. They regularly highlight new books, by continent, that have been translated into English.
More recently, they have introduced a cracking series called “Read your way through”. Here they ask writers to draw up reading lists of works about their cities. Booker Prize-winner Bernardine Evaristo has done London, prolific Turkish fiction writer Elif Shafak Istanbul, and American novelist Paul Theroux Boston. Other destinations include Kingston, Tangier, and Mexico City. It’s impossible to read one of these features without having a burst of wanderlust.
Online review-database Goodreads boasts stacks of user-generated catalogues of books about countries and, in 2012, Ann Morgan, a UK author, read a book for every one of the 196 independent countries (if this teaches you anything, it’s that the definition of “country” is hotly contested). She’s continued to add to it, and you can access her excellent list of fiction and non-fiction picks at ayearofreadingtheworld.com.
Writing this sparked a conversation with friends about books they’ve loved for their evocative settings. Our chat took us over the Rocky Mountains to Montana and washed us up on the Sri Lankan shores. We all agreed, however, that this handful of books are especially worthy to note if you are a sofa sojourner.
New York City, US:
Much of Nora Ephron’s work pivots around the Big Apple. Her scripts for the films You’ve Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally are charming homages to its streets and people. Her books of essays are love letters to Manhattan too. Try I Feel Bad About My Neck, And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman and I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections — or the anthology of her columns, screenplays, plays, and essays titled The Most of Nora Ephron.
Cairo, Egypt: Naguib Mahfouz, Penelope Lively, and Lawrence Durrell conjured this city magnificently, but our vote goes to The Map of Love — Ahdaf Soueif’s romantic and richly historical portrayal of the frenetic Nile metropolis before and after colonial rule.
Dublin, Ireland: From James Joyce to Sally Rooney, making the emerald isle sparkle in prose is practically an Irish national pastime. That said, for her warm and unpretentious portrayals of Dublin, Maeve Binchy’s works, including Tara Road and Evening Class, are hard to beat.
Moscow, Russia: Amor Towles’s way with description in A Gentleman in Moscow will have you beguiled by 1920s Moscow. His lead character might be confined to the Metropol Hotel by his communist foes, but a world of glamour and intrigue swirls nevertheless.
• From the May edition of Wanted, 2023.