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June 20, 2013

Books Can Take You Anywhere --- Literally


In his novel LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, Colum McCann claims that “one of the beauties of New York is that you can be from anywhere and within moments of landing, it is yours,” and he’s right. New York is my favorite city in the world. I came here for college two years ago (all the way from a small town outside San Francisco) and I never want to leave. McCann’s novel happens to be one of my favorites, and I brought it with me when I first arrived as a kind of reference book, my own personal map and guide to the city I had fallen in love with --- through brief visits, stories from my New York-native parents, and of course, through the pages of his novel.

To be honest, I have always thought it was kind of a cliché when people (usually overzealous teachers trying to encourage reluctant readers) discuss with fervor how books “can take you places” and you can “explore new worlds inside them.” Valid statements, but something about those phrases and other similar sentiments made me want to roll my eyes. That is, until I stumbled upon such a vibrant and detailed depiction of New York City and I was forced to agree with them. LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN is New York in the ‘70s, and it tells the stories of various characters living in different neighborhoods and how their lives connect --- from prostitutes living in the Bronx to a wealthy judge on the Upper East Side. Their experiences intertwine to give a complex picture of a city and its people, and an all-encompassing look at one of the world’s most iconic places. As I read, I took in the city as I would if I were actually there: standing in the heat on the sidewalks of the South Bronx, sipping from china in a penthouse apartment, or driving fast down the FDR. Here was the New York I felt like I knew --- just by reading I felt like the city was mine, even before I got on the plane and came to stay for good.

I’ve had similar experiences with other cities as well. The novels of Carlos Ruiz Zafon have taken me through the avenidas of Barcelona, through book shops and abandoned mansions, just as Tana French’s murder mysteries allowed me to wander the streets of Dublin and the quads of Trinity College. While it still sounds like a cliché, it’s true that books can take you places inside your head, and even better, they can take you to real places as well, inspiring exploration outside of the fictional world. So the next time I’m thinking of taking a trip and I need ideas, I might not reach for a travel guide but pick up a novel instead.