Armchair Explorations: the Magic of Travelling Through Books

Books can transport you to places barely imaginable

I don’t know about you, but the first thing on my checklist for a holiday is always a book or two. No matter where I’m going or with whom, I know I’ll be in need of something to capture my attention while I’m away, and of course there is no better way of achieving this than getting stuck into a good read. So what makes for an enjoyable holiday novel? Is it the cheap thrill of a Nicholas Sparks romance, the plot twists of a Da Vinci Code style detective thriller, or the roar of a Jurassic Park Tyrannosaur? Whatever your taste, great pleasure is to be found in reading whilst travelling.

Lovely though this is, for us there is just one problem; everyone knows that poor students can’t afford to travel. So instead of looking at the best books to take away with you, I present to you a more imaginative (and cheaper) way of thinking about travel literature; of books as vehicles for transporting us to worlds unimaginable, worlds which exist nowhere except within the pages of our favourite novels. Why is it so easy to get ‘lost’ in a good book? Casual language such as this betrays the fact that when we read, we move from one fixed place (an armchair; a sun lounger; a moving train) to the fluidity of another place and time entirely. This article will be taking a look at the ways in which authors immerse us in their creations, and why the alternative realities which they present to us are so captivating.

Deconstructing this idea through the lens of the genre of fantasy fiction allows us to see how it applies to literature. Many of you, I’m sure, will have read Lord of the Rings; but more, I think, will either have read or be in the process of reading your way through George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, the most famous instalment being A Game of Thrones. Although these books are similar in that they are based within worlds and around creatures totally fantastical and magical (demonstrated by their often-shared readership), they differ enormously in the way in which they handle the genre. LotR does not offend in its quaintness. This is not to say that it does not explore dark ideas; but Tolkien is very good at avoiding anything too distressing or uncomfortable, creating an environment which is pleasant to sink into, and gentle characters with whom we are eager to share a perspective.

Game of Thrones, on the other hand, takes advantage of its medieval-esque environment to portray eye-wateringly graphic violence which often crosses an invisible line. This is experienced through the eyes of sympathetic and utterly repulsive characters alike. Although its boldness in attention to detail is what makes the story-lines and individual scenes so shocking, it is this same detail which I believe is key to its success in transporting us so effectively from our cosy, familiar living rooms to the echoing splendour of the Winterfell banquet hall, innumerable bloodied battlefields, or the icy, unforgiving eternity of The Wall. Each instalment is very long; Martin is not afraid to spend a lot of time in description, meticulously building, through a huge variety of character perspectives, a world which to us seems totally alien, yet is utterly realistic.

One example continually effective in conveying this realistic yet fantastical world is the consideration given to descriptions of the histories, sigils and words of countless families within the GoT universe. There are so many that there is a special section at the end of each book carefully detailing each house and which of its members are still alive! It’s good to know that Martin is aware of the challenge he gives his readers, even if he (I suspect gleefully) increases this challenge with each sequel. A second example of the way in which excessive attention to detail aids the immersive quality of GoT is in its depiction of a world obsessed with finery; whether this is in mouth-wateringly rich foods or exquisite dresses, the material aspects of this world of Martin’s imagination come to life through their vivid and indulgent detail. We cannot help but be drawn into this dangerous, yet undeniably appealing world, so different to our own, yet so real to us.

This, I think, is the real value of ‘travel’ literature: allowing yourself to be totally at the mercy of the author’s imagination, and in doing so, encouraging your mind to venture into unlimited directions – no matter where it is you don’t have the time or money to visit this summer.

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