When I read a book, I like to imagine that I’m in the place the author describes. Once I lose myself in a book, that’s pretty easy. I’m not in my room or the park anymore – I’m gone, I’m there, I’m lost in the place the writer has taken me to. I’m in New York with Addie LaRue, or in Ketterdam with the Crows. Looking up from my book always comes as a surprise. Coming back to my own thoughts and life is disorienting, and realising I’m back in my own space is sometimes a disappointment. I like to imagine what it would be like to really live in the worlds I read about. The closest it’s possible to get to this, though, is to go to the place where a book was set or written, to try to glean some secret information from the walls and stone and trees that reveal something new, something special, about the books we love so much.
I love the gothic, so going on holiday to Whitby, where Bram Stoker has Dracula’s ship crash against English shores to terrorise the reading public, seemed pretty exciting to me. Sleeping in a Whitby hotel, I was half-convinced that a vampire or ghost would burst out from behind the curtain at any moment and eat me. But walking around the little seaside town, there was nothing there to remind me of the bloody horror of the novel. I was surrounded by tourist traps, happy families, fish and chips. The only thing to remind me of the book was the Dracula Experience, an incredibly cheesy and mildly cringey tourist trap that has been there since at least the 1980s, and which was, whilst hands down the best thing in Whitby, pretty unrelated to the book itself.
Even walking up to the Abbey, which Whitby’s tourism website claims inspired Stoker’s whole novel, I didn’t feel that spark of connection. The breeze was cool coming off the ocean, the sun shone bright in the sky, but there was no Gothic darkness or moody rain. This wasn’t Stoker’s Dracula – this was a nice day out with my family. Staring out at the coastline could tell me nothing about the book. Being in Whitby was wonderful, but it didn’t make any difference to my reading experience at all.
For some books, though, there isn’t even the option to travel to the place that they’re set. Fans of Wuthering Heights can go to the Yorkshire moors, but if your favourite book is Game of Thrones, chances are you won’t be able to book a flight to King’s Landing any time soon. But, knowing full well that I’m setting myself up for the disappointment of reading an escapist book and then remembering I can never actually exist in that universe, I read fantasy books anyway. I know I’ll fall in love with the setting and spend the next day on TikTok watching cosplayers act out scenes from Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology, wishing I could go there and live such a high-stakes existence. There’s a sort of accidental masochism that comes with this disappointment. But the thing that makes me connect to fantasy books isn’t really the places. The place doesn’t make me love the book – it’s an interesting aspect, but detached from the reading experience. I don’t read to be in Ketterdam, I read to spend time with Kaz and Inej. What makes me love Six of Crows is my connection to the characters – how I recognise myself in them, how I love them and care about what happens to them. City streets are the same whether it’s modern New York or 18th century Paris or the totally fictional Kribirsk; they’re just the backdrop of a book. But people change from the beginning to the end, and seeing how they do is the reason why I read stories.
When I think about going on holiday to Whitby, I don’t think about Bram Stoker’s seminal Gothic novel. I think about going through the hilariously awful Dracula Experience. I think of how we climbed up all the steps to Whitby Abbey and how the most exciting thing about it was probably getting chips afterwards. I think of the beautiful necklace I bought there, that I still wear now. I think about how odd it is that my family’s incredibly southern history is so connected to this part of the Yorkshire coast: my mum going there for the folk festival as a kid in the 80s; how my gran, as a kid herself in the 50s, used to go just up the coast to Runswick. The place stopped being Stoker’s, and became mine, a part of my own life and memory.
This isn’t to say that there’s no point in a literary pilgrimage – my friend and I are desperate to go to Bath and Chatsworth because of our mutual love of Jane Austen. We plan trips and think of all the places we want to go to, laughing because we know, as true Austen fans, that the author herself disliked Bath immensely. And yet we still think about our weekend getaway to the city that we can’t help but associate with the Regency era, and with her. Maybe when we finally get there, it will stop being hers and become ours, as Whitby has already. There’s no way to know whether Bath will be a place where I think of good food and better friends, or my favourite books, until I go there and find out.
A book can make me want to go to a place more – reading Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares and the Goldfinch nearly made me drop out of university and move to New York, and reading Six of Crows, even though it’s a fantasy book, makes me desperate to visit to the Netherlands. I want to sit in the New York Public Library and the MoMA, or read a book sitting by a canal in Amsterdam with a bunch of tulips beside me. But what I really want is to live a life that would be written about in these stories; I don’t even want to go to the MoMA, I want to sit in a museum and fall in love. I don’t need to go to Amsterdam, or even Ketterdam, I just want to pull off a fun, elaborate heist with my friends. We read to experience something different, and also to feel something familiar – to feel love, but in a different world, where things are more magical or beautiful than they feel in our own world. If I never visit all of these places, books still matter because of their magic. And if I do go to these places, I won’t need to be transported to a fictional world for them to be magic. They’ll be wonderful because I went there, and had fun, and lived a life that is far less exciting than those of the characters, but was good all the same.
Image credit: wwwuppertal on Flickr, licensed via CC BY 2.0.