Before I take off to a new destination, I try to find a book to take with me so that I can get a better sense of the place. I’m not talking about travel guides. I mean a good, solid story that will immerse me in the culture and its people — past or present.
I actually began this project unknowingly when I was an exchange student in France one summer. I remember asking the family what books were so popular that most every French person had read them, whether for school or pleasure. For days, my French family couldn’t come up with anything, and I was shocked. They eventually came through, and two of those books are on the France Books page. The following year, I reciprocated by sending my French sisters The Catcher in the Rye.
Now, more than two decades after my summer in France, I’ve decided to begin compiling lists for others who might want some literature that will enhance their journey. I’ve included both obvious choices, in case a classic slipped your mind, as well as some lesser-known nuggets I’ve discovered. Unless otherwise stated, all picks are mine.
I’ve put each book into at least one of the following categories. I’ve provided some American books as examples of each:
- Classic/Culturally Significant. Not just in the sense that it’s a classic read but in that it’s something most everyone in the country has read or refers to. Examples: The Wizard of Oz, as you almost can’t go a day without someone referencing Baum’s classic work or the movie it spawned. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not only a classic but it provides a vivid portrait of that particular part of the U.S. at a very particular time.
- Person/Place/Event. This could be, for example, a famous film star, a UNESCO World Heritage site, or historical event. In some cases, the author of the book may not even be from that country but might have lived there or studied about it. Examples: Both The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Patti Smith’s Just Kids introduce influential American figures while providing insight into the culture of the time period (which fulfills the next criterion).
- Sense of Culture. Reading the book provides a better understanding of how a country’s people think and behave. Examples: In addition to the books just mentioned, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe provides a look into Southern American culture.
Note that a book can belong to more than one country. For example, Herman Hesse was both Swiss and German, and his book Siddhartha takes place in Kapilavastu, whose location is debated by scholars as being in either Nepal or India. So I’ve placed Siddhartha in all four countries.
And as far as how I determined the countries, I decided not to reinvent the wheel and used the same criteria Ann Morgan did when she created A Year of Reading the World: all countries that are currently in the United Nations plus Palestine and Taiwan.
Have a book you’d like to recommend? Use the form below to submit a suggestion. Note that all fields with an asterisk (*) are required. If you’d like me to link to your site or a social media profile, include that in the Personal Link field.