A City Can Be Found in Its Books

From a Times Insider column by Katherine J. Igoe headlined “A City Can Be Found in Its Books”:

One of the best ways to learn about a locale is through its literature. Now, after years of Covid-19 restrictions, global travel has picked up again, and Read Your Way Around the World, a series from the Books desk at The New York Times, aims to help readers with their wanderlust. In the column, authors provide literary guides to their cities, including book recommendations that capture a sense of everyday life and the local cultural landscape.

For Juliana Barbassa, the deputy editor for news and features on the Books desk and the creator of the series, reading books about a place provides “a depth of experience” to travelers — whether they have plans to visit or are simply curious. She said the series was inspired by her personal routine: She seeks out authors and books to immerse herself in a destination, and she reads local literature before and during trips. She wanted to share that experience with others — and connect readers with writers.

“If you had a very smart friend who was also an author, knew everyone in the literary scene, had been writing about this place forever and was willing to sit with you for coffee when you were planning your trip, what books would they recommend?” Ms. Barbassa said.

Each installment is less a definitive anthology of required reading, and more a carefully crafted personal guide. As the Spanish author Álvaro Pombo said to Juan Villoro, who wrote recommendations for Mexico City: “Mexico is too complex to understand with the naked eye. It needs to be read.” The same can be said for any new place, whether you’re a tourist, a resident or a traveler of the mind.

Read Your Way Around the World began in June with Paris. Ms. Barbassa decided to kick it off with reading lists for European cities because she knew they would be popular destinations in the summer. The series has since expanded to cities around the globe. She aims for a diversity of voices and genres, from up-and-coming writers to established authors.

Yasmine El Rashidi, an Egyptian journalist and novelist, read the Paris list the day it came out and knew she needed to write her own version for Cairo. She did not initially know which books to include, so she sent Ms. Barbassa a pitch with the intended “atmosphere” of the article. “There’s something about it — I think either the city completely absorbs you, or you can’t take it,” Ms. El Rashidi said. “I feel everything I write is about trying to capture what the city is.”

Daniel Kehlmann, a German author, was approached by Ms. Barbassa to write the literary guide for Berlin. “Just thinking about the list, I felt overwhelmed for a while,” he said. “There are so many good books about Berlin.”

The writers have the freedom to curate their reading lists however they’d like, whether by highlighting books with personal meaning, offering a broad analysis of literature and language or taking on politics. For the Berlin reading list, Mr. Kehlmann focused on how the city “rose above its tragic past and became a great place to be.”

“Germany is a boringly well-governed country now,” he said. “So what’s really interesting here is the history.” He chose books such as Alfred Döblin’s 1929 classic “Berlin Alexanderplatz” and Thomas Brussig’s “The Short End of the Sonnenallee,” which satirized life in East Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Ms. El Rashidi, by contrast, focused her reading list on modern Cairo, a city she wrote is “changing fast” as rapid development erases neighborhoods and cultural landmarks. “They may not be the sexiest books,” she said of her picks, “but they give you a sense of what it means to be of Cairo, and Cairo across time — what’s been maintained through all the changes and political upheavals.”

Months after its debut, Read Your Way Around the World has already engendered passionate dialogue. Readers have been vocal in the comments section, Ms. Barbassa said: “Readers engage enthusiastically and say, ‘I can’t believe you didn’t mention this or that book. When I went there, it was essential.’ That conversation has been lively and rewarding.” The comments section usually becomes an expanded reading list beyond the writer’s recommendations.

In a way, the series has done more than offer literary guides: It has created a global book club.

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