How to be a Literary Tourist

The literary tourist is a multi-colored bird. One species likes to visit places that help get them closer to characters or places found in novels. Another plays the pilgrim, paying respects to admired authors – contemplating in front of gravestones, touring childhood homes and museums, walking footpaths that inspired favorite poems. Others pay little mind to literary content – it’s the casing, the container that speaks to them. They haunt rare book libraries and (if the acquisitive type), antiquarian bookstores, thrilling to the touch of leather, the feel of letterpress printed pages, the look of woodcut illustrations. Many of these book-loving travelers also love Shakespeare, and good theatre. They seek out live stage performances.

As with other genuses, the literary tourist typically looks first for

events and activities they can fill their travels with. An antiquarian book fair, for example, a writers festival, a book arts or writing workshop; anything that will anchor the adventure – help structure the getaway.

Once you’ve determined your ‘marquee’ activity or event, the next step is to suss out the literary scene. Local on-line literary calendars can help here. Bywords.ca is a good example. It covers Ottawa, Canada. So is RainTaxi in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Here you get the goods on upcoming readings or exhibits. Universities often host speaker series. I recently visited Rochester, N.Y, and learned about the Plutzik reading series. Here nationally renowned novelists and poets come to share their works with local (and visiting) audience members. The University is home to the Rush Rhees Rare Book Library. It has a particularly strong collection of the works and papers of 20th Century American poets. Novelist John Gardner is also very well represented.

Bookstores are also key destinations for travelling bibliophiles. Pull together a list of ‘open shops’ before your visit. These days you can search the inventories of most online. Do this in advance and ask the sellers to put aside items of interest for inspection. Shopping in person saves you shipping costs and ensures certainty about the condition of the books. Don’t forget the By Appointment dealers either. They usually operate out of their homes. Many offer high quality collections of a kind not often found in your regular brick and mortar operation.

Speaking of local bookstores and what’s in them: much as different parts of the country specialize in and produce different kinds of apples, wines, cheeses, pastries and sausages…many regions are home to their own locally-based, nationally known small presses and publishing houses. Minneapolis for instance, has the Milkweed, Coffee House and Graywolf presses. Titles from these houses are plentiful in the area, and can typically be had for less than you might pay elsewhere. In Rochester I saw a lot of BOA Edition books on the bookstore shelves. I’d never heard of them before, but soon learned that they have a long, impressive history of producing quality books, and in fact host local events and readings throughout the year.

Wanna get outdoors? Maybe a cemetery. Author/abolitionist Frederick Douglass, for example, is buried in Rochester’s Mount Hope Cemetery. The stone itself isn’t much to look at, but the setting is extraordinary. Bountiful rolling terrain decorated with hundreds of exquisite Victorian sculptures. Rochester has also, recently, developed a ‘Poet’s Walk’ downtown where visitors can read and listen with their phones to the works of locally important poets.

Finally, once you arrive at your destination, don’t stop. Be sure to continue your literary quest by asking everyone and anyone you meet – booksellers, librarians, writing instructors, people on the street – where the cool literary stuff is at. If I hadn’t have done this during my Rochester trip I would have missed one of the best rare book libraries in the country. Housed at the Rochester Institute of Technology, the Cary Collection has outstanding holdings in the history and development of book design and typography.

Asking questions of the bibliophiles you meet on your travels will not only help you to discover new treasures, it’ll also give you a chance to talk to some of the most interesting people on the planet.

So give it a shot. Be a literary tourist the next time you travel. You pick the color.

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