Why you should read fiction instead of non-fiction when you’re travelling

Hear me out.

My life has been made in non-fiction. I am a blogger, a travel writer, a personal narrative junkie. When I’m planning a trip, the first thing I do is seek out well-written travel blogs and guidebooks like Lonely Planet and all the rest.

But when I’m on the road, there is nothing – and I mean nothing – that beats a good chunk of fiction for understanding a place’s spirit. The life force that makes it flow. The heart and soul.

I almost exclusively read fiction these days, as you might have realized from my book lists. I recently had a conversation with some editors about the fact that what we read online can be very different from what we read offline. When I’m sitting in a bus navigating my way from Montenegro to Croatia, the last thing I want to be absorbed in is a top ten list.


I’m aware this isn’t fiction. Truly.
I’m of the belief that literature can define a place. The Canadian Lit scene, for example, is a strong and supportive part of our cultural landscape, and an absolutely necessary one. I just read Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce – a gorgeous book taking place in the Canadian Arctic, in an aboriginal community…a place where many visitors to Canada will not familiarize themselves (or Canadians either, for that matter).

I came across this Boston Globe article recently that talks about why fiction is good for us. I think this quote sums it up:

“Fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence.

We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.

But perhaps the most impressive finding is just how fiction shapes us: mainly for the better, not for the worse. Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds.”

Fiction writers have the uncanny ability to give us insight into a way of thinking, or a local concept, in a way that often outside travel writers cannot. This is one of my all-time favourite quotes from Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams:

“I exhausted myself trying to take it all in, noting every little variation and departure from how things were supposed to be. My notion of home and everything in it as ideal, archetypal, was being overthrown. It was as though the definitions of all the words in my vocabulary were expanding at once…Cape Breton was much like Newfoundland, yet everything seemed slightly off. That I was able to detect such subtle differences made me realize how circumscribed my life had been, how little of the world I had seen.”

I remember reading this for the first time and putting the book down in shock, because for the first time ever somebody had adequately described how I feel every single time I travel. And you can bet that many, many Newfoundlanders feel the exact same way.

Reading quilt

You should have a good reading quilt to go with it.
I challenge you to read one important piece of fiction per country you visit, or at least per country in which you spend a substantial amount of time.

In Iceland, I read Halldor Laxness’s Independent People. In a book like this, it’s clear that the landscape shapes the people. You’ll see for yourself.

In Greece, I read Niko Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek…one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever come across. While it takes place in a much earlier Greece, it’s just so very Greek. All of it. How the people there appreciate the smaller details – a slower lifestyle.

“I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roasted chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else.”

In travel writing, we talk a lot about how important it is to immerse into a local culture. What better way than the local literature?

I guess it’s a good time to announce that I’ve been accepted into the Humber College School for Writers starting in January, where I’ll be working on my first book-length manuscript with a Canadian author. I’ll always be travel writing, but it’s a relief to return to my first love – fiction!

What do you think? What pieces of fiction have you read that help you identify with a place?


If you’re on Goodreads, friend me to see what I’ve been reading lately.

  • October 22 2014

    I’ve always read almost exclusively fiction (now it’s more like 75% with a few memoirs thrown in). I read a lot on the road: on trains, planes, buses, waiting for things to happen, at the end of a long day and I choose fiction because it allows my brain some time to escape from the critical thinking travel usually required. I don’t always read books associated with the countries I’m visiting but I like to read books based in those countries later on: it helps me relive my travels.

    • October 22 2014

      and congrats on the acceptance! I first read it as teh College Humor School for Writing, which would have been interesting. Can’t wait to see what you write.

      • October 22 2014

        That’s a good point, it differently invokes a different way of thinking. And actually the college DOES specialize in humour writing, hahaha. Although that’s not what I’ll be working on. Thanks!

  • October 22 2014
    Filipa Chatillon

    I’m with you on this, but heve one exception: Ondaatje’s “Running in the Family”. I read it before going to Sri Lanka, and again while I was there and I go back to it now and then, because of some of the poetry. The fact that it shares his family history probably helps to shape it like fiction, but the bottom line is really how beautifully written the book is. I have a really hard time picking favorite books, but this one would definitely be in that list.

    • October 22 2014

      Ah! Ondaatje! Haven’t read this one. Oh my lord I’m going to add so many books to my reading list.

  • October 22 2014

    I love reading and read about a hundred books every year (mostly historical fiction and YA fantasy). I am not a literary professional and have no background in literature. I am horrible at reviewing books as I do not know the terminology or what makes a proper story. I simply either like a book or I don’t. So that being said, I love reading fiction that takes place in the country/city I am planning to visit. Is that what you are recommending or do you think the book should be written by an author from that country? For example, I read Please Look After Mom (pretty boring) and The Beloved Daughter (absolutely amazing) in preparation for my trip to Korea earlier this year. Would those books be considered Korean Lit for being about Korea or does the author have to be from Korea?

    • October 22 2014

      Daaaamn! And I thought I did good with my 52-book challenge last year, haha. I also love historical fiction and I think it fits well into this piece. I don’t think it has to be by a local author, per se. One of my faves is The Cellist of Sarajevo, and the author is from Canada (or maybe it’s the US, I don’t remember). I just think fiction serves well to introduce another perspective/ I’ve never read The Beloved Daughter. Who wrote it?

      • October 22 2014

        I’m not sure if I will hit 100 this year as I have been tackling some bigger, slower reads (Philippa Gregory books) and I often forget to keep track on goodreads. The Beloved Daughter is by Alana Terry – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17798886-the-beloved-daughter. It really paints a vivid picture of how sad life in North Korea is. I had no idea until I read this book exactly how horrific conditions were there. Then I toured the border called the Joint Security Area (JSA) between North and South Korea. Our tour guides were American soldiers and they told many stories about how sad/crazy the North Koreans are only validating everything I learned and read in the book. Having read this book, made my experience to the border more enriching. Anyways, I love your blog and your book lists!

        • October 27 2014

          Ahh, thanks so much! Sometimes I feel so alone in the book reading world, hahaha.

  • October 22 2014

    Challenge accepted! Seriously. I really need to read more fiction. I find more and more lately I’ve my nose buried in a non-fiction book or reading online. But there’s nothing like fiction to draw you in and make you want to hide out from any responsibilities while you feverishly read page after page. Although I’ve read fiction that helped me identify with a place, I’ve never actually visited the countries the books are from! But books like Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee gave me a deeper understanding of the politics and history of South Africa, and I love anything by Murakami (I think Kafka on the Shore is my favourite), his novels just feel so beautifully Japanese. I came across this a few weeks back: http://ayearofreadingtheworld.com/thelist/ Have you seen it? Might find some more inspiration there :)

    • October 27 2014

      OMG. Thanks for that. I’m going to spend all morning perusing that book list now, hahaha.

  • October 24 2014

    Congratulations on getting into your course! It sounds like a dream :)
    I agree with you 100% reading fiction can give you such an understanding and appreciation for a country. I try to buy at least one book about each place I visit before I go and it really gives me a sense of the place. I absolutely love reading about somewhere and then actually standing in a place that you’ve already imagined, it’s great!
    I find that fiction is a really good way to encourage friends who otherwise wouldn’t know about the history of a place to learn and then get excited about it! That’s my sneaky plan anyway! :)

    • October 27 2014

      That’s very true as well! Historical fiction is one of my fave genres. I’m always amazed by the authors who can piece together such tedious history sometimes.

  • October 24 2014

    I just finished reading A House in the Sky by the Canadian freelance journalist/traveller in Somalia. It was an emotional read but I loved it because I could relate to her passion to want to discover the world, even when she faced tragic period in a difficult country. It helped me understand a people and culture in different part of the world I haven’t yet been to.

    • October 27 2014

      Oh man, I’ve been recommending that book to everyone ALL YEAR, hahaha. I read it at the end of 2013 and it destroyed me. I related to Lindhout too. One of the more heartbreaking books I’ve ever read.

  • October 24 2014

    Hey Candice! I really enjoyed this post, what a great idea – and perfect timing for me. I’m about to head up north in a few weeks to Cairns and the Whitsundays (I’m in Brisbane), I’ll see if I can get my hands on some writing set in the region. Reading this post now, I wish I’d read Beautiful Ruins when I was in Cinque Terre. I’ve only just started the book, but it seems like it will be mostly set in a tiny town just down from Cinque Terre. I’m a new MatadorU writing student, hopefully I’ll see you around the U! Genevieve

    • October 27 2014

      Fantastic! I’ve gotta pick up some Berlin material for my upcoming trip too. Good fuel for the soul.

  • November 07 2014
    Ashley of mywanderlustylife.co

    This is an amazing post! This is all stuff I have felt, but never saw put into words and therefore make sense! Thank you for this! One thing I do is read books about places that interest me THEN go crazy to visit it. Or I’ll visit a place THEN read books about it/that take place there and enjoy it so much more because of the familiarity. I’ve been dying to visit Saint-Malo in France since reading All the Light We Cannot See, and I loved reading Dan Brown’s Inferno after returning from Florence, and Angels and Demons while living in Italy. (BTW, Bossypants is a fantastic read!!)

    • November 12 2014

      Hahaha, I’m so glad you agree! In fact, I’m surprised by how many people DO agree. And you’re right, after reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, I totally want to go to Tahiti now.

  • November 20 2014
    Ish Bugs

    good article..

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