By Sally Ross
In 1987, my university colleagues in Xi’an, China, were my age: 38. But while I enjoyed college and my first years of teaching from 1966 to 1976, my contemporaries, children of “elitist” Chinese urban families, were sent to the countryside for re-education through manual labor. Their parents and teachers, like millions of Chinese, were publically humiliated, imprisoned, and killed.
And I had no idea! During the Cultural Revolution, just 10 years prior to my semester there, China banned foreign journalists, missionaries, and scholars. But early winds of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 encouraged stories that stunned and intrigued me. Thus began my life-long devotion to reading about the places I would travel.
I later devoured books about the Cultural Revolution: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, Red Azalea by Anchee Min, and Cries in the Drizzle by Yu Hua. That led to Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls, describing World War II as the Japanese attacked China, and her Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, about the horror of binding women’s feet. Because of a three-day train ride to Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert, I was fascinated by The Gobi Desert – The Adventures of Three Women Traveling Across the Gobi Desert in the 1920s, by Mildred Cable and Francesca French.
Across the years, books have enhanced my traveling beyond measure, providing a lens into culture, events, and people I would meet or learn about. While in the Scottish Highlands, I love Neil Gunn’s Highland River, his childhood memoir of nearby Dunbeath, and Silver Darlings, exploring the lives of thousands of people cleared from historic farms and forced into herring fishing in the 1800s. On a lighter note, John Buchan’s John Mcnab is a 1925 romp in which three bored, upper class gents set out on a dare to steal a salmon and a stag from wealthy Highland estates.
In Russia, reading Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie helped me appreciate her palaces as well as her accomplishments as a woman in the late 18th century. Thomas Cahill’s Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter was a poolside delight in Santorini with chapters including How to Fight, How to Feel and How to Party. Dallas Murphy’s Rounding the Horn had me awestruck while cruising around and climbing upon Cape Horn. And because I had read Brunelleschi’s Dome: The Story of the Great Cathedral in Florence by Ross King, scrambling to the top of that Duomo was even more breath-taking.
Choosing books wisely before and after travel deepens our experience of the now by revealing what has come before and for others.