Teaching Traveling: Ever considered travel inspired by the locations of famous literature? Let’s speak with a librarian named Elizabeth from the blog, A Suitcase Full of Books, about her journey to search the world for stories! Elizabeth, tell us about your background.
Elizabeth: Hello! My lifelong addiction to books and fascination with history led me to become an Archivist and Special Collections Librarian in my home state of Alaska. Being able to combine my love of history and the written word in one amazing profession is pretty great, and Alaska is particularly beautiful, but sometimes you just have to get out of the book stacks. There’s a whole world out there represented in the pages filling our bookshelves, and I mean to experience it!
More often than not, I visit historical sites and literary related destinations and record them in my travel blog. With attention spans shrinking thanks to the internet, I hope to re-inspire interest in literature by demonstrating the connections between the pages and physical places and cultures relevant to today’s world.
TT: Brilliant. Tell us more about your travels.
E: My favorite childhood mystery series was The Famous Five by Enid Blyton. [Note: Purchases via links in this article support this site at no cost to you.] I don’t remember at what point I learned that the inspiration for the setting of the books was a real place in England: Corfe Castle and the Dorset coast. For me it would be a dream come true to visit where Blyton’s fictional characters solve their mysteries. I too wanted to explore the British countryside, climb around castle ruins, and peek in seaside caves.
What I didn’t know is that the trip would teach me about the art of fiction writing. Enid Blyton was able to see more than what was before her. Corfe Castle, which is decidedly not on an island, and does not have a dungeon, in her book became an island ruin with a dark dungeon hiding gold. Dorset’s abandoned stone quarry caves, which actually were used by smugglers at one point, became caves with tunnels that came up just at the right places to follow the criminals and catch them red-handed! Blyton let her imagination play with the elements before her, a skill at which I could use more practice.
On another trip I visited Chincoteague, Virginia to experience the Annual Pony Penning and foal auction, the events on which Misty of Chincoteague is based. While much of the story is fictional, the ponies Misty and her foal Stormy were in fact quite real. So real in fact, that their taxidermied forms can be visited at the Chincoteague museum… While I wasn’t ready to stomach that shock, the better surprise was that just like in the story, even today the pony foal auction is a place where young children’s dreams are fulfilled. The Feather Fund is a group that purchases foals for two lucky young girls each year, with the understanding that ownership of a pony will teach hard work, responsibility, care and ethics, and also build self confidence and provide a loving companion.
And speaking of good in the world, a visit to Prince Edward Island proved that Anne of Green Gables’ theory of “Kindred Spirits” is no more fiction than the beauty of the island. That was another trip that restored my faith in humanity.
TT: Love it. How do you find your travel ideas?
E: Living in Alaska, there are a lot of dark winter nights where curling up with a good book is all you want to do. Unfortunately, the more books I read, the longer my travel bucket-list grows!
TT: How do you fund your travels?
E: I don’t spend a lot in my day-to-day life. My philosophy towards spending tends to go something like this: Do I have an acceptably working one? Then I don’t need a new one. I know I’d like to get those shoes, but how many times will they actually be worn? Would the money be better put towards that souvenir on my next trip, or an entrance/tour fee? I also try to save by borrowing books from the library, doing exercise at home rather than pay an expensive gym membership, and spend my time with friends having movie parties at home or enjoying the great outdoors-both relatively cheap enjoyments. This way I end up saving most of my money for travel.
TT: Very smart. Now, tell us a few moments from your travels that were particularly interesting.
E: While in London, I was determined to visit certain statues of some of my favorite fictional characters. While Paddington Bear’s bronze figure did him justice, I’m sorry to say I found Peter Pan’s likeness far from what I expected. When I thought about it, it made sense. The statue was based on the likeness of one of J. M. Barrie’s adopted sons, not Disney’s Pan. This statue was selected as part of a project to animate 35 British statues by adding a voice. Using your phone, you could scan a QR code which would then take you to a site that would play a recorded message read as if the statue were talking to you. When Pan began to speak through my iPhone, he started with, “Do you really think that looks like me?”
On a less funny note, during my most recent trip I visited the Anne Frank House. This visit, as it strayed from my usual fiction book destinations, was all too real. I had prepared for the visit by reading Anne Frank’s diary on the plane so the events that had played themselves out here were fresh in my mind. Strangely, for most of my visit to the museum I felt as though I was walking through a building that had just inspired a story. There was so little left inside to tie this place to reality. It wasn’t until I exited the Hidden Annex and saw the identification index cards and Anne’s actual diary that my stomach turned over. I hope to add more non-fiction book destinations to my blogging, but hopefully none as powerful as this.
TT: Such an important visit. How have your travels impacted you as a Librarian, and as a person?
E: My travels to literary heritage sites have taught me that each novel has a greater context than I could have known to begin with. Each destination reveals the history of the place, the background of the author, the social climate at the time, and many other factors that caused the book to turn out the way it did. As a special collections librarian, I work with original manuscripts and families’ old photograph collections. My travels remind me that the artifacts I work with are more than just words or images printed on a piece of paper. They all have a story behind them. Somebody had enough of an emotional attachment to the item to determine it should be saved. While I might not ever know the full context behind the collection, someday, somebody’s descendants will be very happy to find it so well cared for and respectfully preserved. Just imagine what a shame it would be if nobody had preserved the original manuscripts of Anne Frank’s or Lucy Maud Montgomery’s diaries!
On a personal level, I believe seeking out destinations based on literature has the potential to take you to a new place and different culture, presenting opportunities to learn about and be an ambassador to a new community. Reading a novel, fiction or nonfiction, related to a place or culture can also often provide an understanding of beliefs held by a community that would not translate well in a short non-immersive visit. During my trips I have certainly found aspects of other cultures I wish to incorporate into my own community. The kindness of the Canadians and the politeness of the British are admirable qualities, and the change will start with me.
TT: Beautiful. What advice do you have for librarians or other book-lovers who are dreaming of travel?
E: While working in a profession that earns you a comfortable livable wage, but may not provide an excess of funds, I have discovered that the first step is to just make up my mind to go, no matter the funds. Then I do a lot of research. NomadicMatt.com is a great resource for learning how to save money beforehand, find deals, and learn tips for traveling cheaply.
I google for blog posts about the places I want to go. Personal blogs often provide a lot of hints for things to do and places to go that can be done at fairly low expense. I also write on a calendar what I want to see each day of the trip so I can visualize the tours and their cost amounts for the entire trip. This lets me plan ahead and see if I can find discounts before-hand.
Lastly, I turn to travel discussion boards like Reddit and Lonely Planet’s Thorntree forums to ask questions from people who have been and/or live in the location I want to visit. This can result in some great restaurant and sightseeing recommendations. Finally, when it comes to packing, HeyNadine.com has some really helpful vlogs on YouTube for the inexperienced traveler.
TT: Great tips! Another neat option is using the Viator tour search engine to track down “literary tours,” or “tours about books,” or “literature tours” around the world. As an English teacher, myself, I am so intrigued with this concept, and love your literary travels, Elizabeth!
Readers, what questions or comments do you have for this traveling Librarian?