Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
If guidebooks aren’t your thing, check out these stories to learn about the cities you’re visiting next.
If you’re planning a trip to Vienna, consider picking up Robert Seethaler’s book The Tobacconist. It follows the unlikely friendship between a tobacconist’s apprentice and the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Set in Austria’s capital in 1937—right before Nazi Germany annexed the country—the plot takes readers around the city, from the tobacconist’s shop in the ninth district to the nearby Votive Church, and to Freud’s office, which is now the Sigmund Freud Museum.
Or, if you don’t have a destination in mind, perhaps Trevor Noah’s autobiographical comedy book Born a Crime will inspire you to explore to his childhood home in Johannesburg, South Africa.
These are two books recommended through a new project called Reading the City, a site that encourages readers to explore cities through books, both fiction and nonfiction. On the site, each book recommendation is paired with a map of locations mentioned, so visitors can take their own walking tours. Some locations are actual buildings and landmarks, others are estimates of where a scene takes place based on the descriptions in the books (a character’s home or shop, for example). Taken together, the site serves as a way to connect places and the stories about them, and is a useful way for travelers to preview a city and get more context about their next destination.
Locations in a book can serve as destinations, as reference points, or as talking points with other people, says Julia Feld, whose own travel inspired her to create the website. “A book is a good entryway into having questions about a place,” she says. “I just want to chat with people, and hear their stories and get to know them.”
Only a month old, Feld’s website has recommendations for seven cities so far—including Berlin, Naples, and London—and she hopes to add more cities in the future. She already has five cities on her to-do list, including New York, Tokyo, and Istanbul. “I try to pick stories that are deeply connected to that specific city,” Feld says, adding that she plans to read every book from start to finish before writing her recommendations.
Part of the inspiration came from her father, an architecture professor who traveled to universities around the world, giving talks about how to “read” a city using maps. The idea, Feld says, was that even if you didn’t know a city, “you could use a map to tell a story of that city’s development, and you can look at maps over time to see who owned the narrative of that city.” She attended those lectures, and the conversation would often continue at the dinner table. When she became old enough to travel, she always asked him for books about her destination.
Feld says she started thinking about this project to share those stories with other travelers. While travelers often rely on guidebooks to experience a city, she says literature offers a deeper understanding and connection with a place. A guidebook might skim the surface of a landmark’s significance to the city, for example, while a book written by, say a immigrant author, can reveal a more complex and sometimes lesser-known backstory from different points of view. “I wanted to throw in a mix of authors with different backgrounds—either women, people of color, immigrants, or maybe they’re international—who can encapsulate a slightly more diverse perspective,” says Feld.
At the same time, she acknowledges that because she handpicks each book, the recommendations are somewhat biased toward her own relationship with a place. Some books are recommendations from her dad or her friends; others are chosen based on “whatever makes me curious.” Still others were picked for their significance to her own experience.
Feld grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the daughter of Argentinian immigrants. For Boston area, she chose a book that hit close to home: Interpreter of Maladies, a series of short stories about the Indian American experience by the American author Jhumpa Lahiri. She says she related to the theme of immigration and—now that she’s living in Berlin as an expat—questions about belonging. “I felt really connected to those narratives,” she says.
As the project continues, she hopes to have multiple recommendations for each cities. Her site is currently asking visitors to make suggestions, and eventually she hopes to have a collection of titles by authors of all backgrounds, picked not only by her but also by people around the world who live in those cities.