literary tourism

Have you ever gotten so absorbed in a book that it consumes you? That it takes over your mind in such a way that you can’t stop thinking about it? I’ve definitely gotten anti-social because of a book – not wanting to do anything other than read, all day long. In some cases, readers are able to pull their book into a more tangible reality by traveling to places featured in their favourite books. In effect, literary tourism was the founding member of so-called “fan tourism”, which now counts film, TV, and music among its family members. Some of the biggest names in fan tourism are Harry Potter and Twilight, both due in part by the massively successful books and movies, as well as the wildly popular Sex and the City NYC tours and Beatles Abbey Road pilgrimages.

These, of course, are more recent examples, because fan tourism has actually existed for decades.  From Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday to Jane Austen’s Bath, people have been paying homage to their favourites for as long as their favourites have existed.  In fact, the Jane Austen Centre is located in Bath, not because Jane lived there for a few, albeit miserable, years, but because it was a destination featured so prominently in her stories as a place of luxury and high society.  Despite the fact that Jane Austen despised Bath and its snobbery, her readers felt attracted to it.

So how do you turn the pages of your favourite books into a reality?  Here are some helpful tips.

Do Your Research – As always.  It’s a given, isn’t it?  Two years ago I finished reading The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, which was part history lesson, part urban commentary surrounding the 1854 cholera outbreak on Broad Street (now Broadwick Street in Soho) in Victorian London.  Long story short, it was fascinating (if slightly dull at times), and the next time I was in London, I wanted to visit the John Snow Pub, which stands on the site where the contamination spread through a water pump.  Dr. John Snow was a central protagonist in the novel, and historically responsible for deducing that cholera is, in fact, spread through contaminated water.  Huge deal.  Anyway, in all my excitement about visiting this site (nerd alert!), I only did a tiny bit of research.  Turns out the pub was super dingy and not worth eating in, and Broadwick Street itself was rather challenging to find on a dark, rainy evening.  Needless to say, I was disappointed.  So do your research better, know what you’re going to see (and if it’s really worthwhile), and have a good plan.

Don’t Overdo It – Now, I’m a bad Canadian for saying this, but I don’t care much for Anne of Green Gables.  Sorry.  I just never really got the appeal, and I think it’s because I don’t like farms.  Meh.  However, I know there are countless tourists who make the trek to Prince Edward Island every year to experience the life of the literary legend created so long ago by L. M. Montgomery.  Obviously, I’ve never been, but from what I have heard, you can very easily reach a point of overexposure when it comes to that wily ginger-braided girl.  While you may be a die-hard fan of something, be careful that you don’t overdo it.  You know the sickly-nauseous feeling you get when you eat a whole box of chocolates (thanks, Forrest) – remember that when you’re inundated with red-haired, freckled paraphernalia, shows, tours, books, movies, experiences, dolls, stationery, and yes, even stained glass.

Kill Two Birds With One Stone – Apparently Freud used to love to work at Cafe Landtmann in Vienna.  Fantastic!  On my list to do is have a coffee and pastry at a legendary Vienna coffee house, AND walk in the steps of Sigmund Freud.  This is how you kill two birds with one stone.  Cross-reference your list of things to see and do in a destination and see if any of them overlap.  It’ll save you time and money, and make for a more holistic experience, too!

Don’t Stress If It’s Not Perfect – Love Ernest Hemingway?  Hate cigars?  Don’t worry.  You don’t have to get the experience exact.  Just because Hemingway chilled in a particular cigar-infested bar in Havana doesn’t mean you have to do the same.  Check out the exterior of the bar, but find an alternative way to experience Hemingway’s Cuban love.  He has left trails of his passions all over Cuba, in particular, his farm, Finca Vigia, which has now been transformed into a Hemingway museum.

Do Your Own Thing – I expect a lot of people are out there now planning their own Eat Pray Love adventure, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re emulating it very closely.  But I wonder – how is that going to be truly fulfilling to anyone?  Author Elizabeth Gilbert undertook that journey for very personal reasons, and her destination decisions were made on a very intrinsic level, so why would it have the same profound effect on anyone else?!  That’s right, it won’t.  If you want to do a year-long escape-everything journey, go ahead.  People have been doing it for decades.  Just make sure you do what you want to do, and what you, will find fulfilling.  Otherwise, you’ll just look like a foolish little copycat with no sense of self-fulfillment.

With the world awash with people writing about traveling, it’s good to remember the roots of the opposite – people traveling because of writing.  For a more in-depth read on literary tourism, I highly suggest you check out the book Novel Destinations: From Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West by Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon.  This book will help ensure that the magic remains as you seek to transform your literary favourites into a tangible, and enjoyable reality.  Also, if you’re interested in taking a literary-focused vacation, check out for an assortment of tours.

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