Traveling the World? Here’s What to Read

Peter Schlesinger


Room to Read founder John Wood shares his favorite books on destinations around the world.

Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, John Wood recalls libraries as his “portals out of Small Town America.” In 2000, to help other children discover those same literary escapes, he left his executive position at Microsoft to found Room to Read, an organization devoted to children’s literacy and gender equality in education. Beginning in Nepal, it has since expanded to ten countries throughout Asia and Africa, and is set to launch in the Caribbean and Middle East. Along the way, Room to Read has distributed 18 million books, trained nearly 10,000 teachers and librarians, and commissioned more than 1,500 original local-language children’s books, benefitting around 10 million children. “I’d like one day to be able to say that we’ve reached 100 million kids, and brought them a world of literacy and a love of reading books.”

Rosewood has partnered with Room to Read throughout 2017 to continue its mission. In honor of Global Literacy Month in September, several Rosewood hotels and resorts are offering special programs to raise funds for the cause.

Wood’s personal passion for discovering new worlds through literature has continued unabated. “I’m still a voracious reader,” he says, tallying between 40 and 50 titles a year. “I read anywhere and everywhere I can get a free minute airplanes, subways, late night in hotel rooms after the rest of the world has gone to sleep. To me, the best part of travel books has always been that they transcend time—the reader can get a feel for a place before he visits it, gain a deeper understanding of it while there, and relive the memories
long after departure.”

Here are a few of his favorite books that give insight in destinations around the world, from pan-European adventures to New Mexico.

EUROPE

The Elephant’s Journey, José Saramago (2008)

Saramago, the Portuguese writer who received the Nobel Prize in 1998, became fascinated when he learned that a Viennese restaurant’s paintings of an elephant going over the Alps were based on true events. In the 16th century, Spanish royals ventured to Vienna to present the Habsburgs with an elephant as a wedding present. “He started to research it, and being Saramago, he wrote a masterpiece,” says Wood. “The journey itself is one of the highlights of my reading for the last decade.”

PARIS

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (2014)

Wood loves this “beautiful” novel set during WWII France, following a young French girl whose family flees Paris, as well as a young German man drafted into the army. “Marie-Laure, the protagonist, is blind. Her father is the most loving father, possibly in the history of literature,” he says. “The novel is long, but it never feels overly long. It was a bit like Tolstoy. Everything just worked.”

NEW MEXICO

Red Sky at Morning, Richard Bradford (1968)

This coming of age tale set in rural New Mexico has been called the Southwest’s answer to Catcher in the Rye. “It conveys the feeling that you’re a young boy living in a world where the sky is infinite, and life in front of you is infinite. It’s beautifully written.”

NEW YORK CITY

Any Human Heart, William Boyd (2002)

“Anybody who loves literature who has not read Any Human Heart should stop what they’re doing, take a day off work, and start reading it,” says Wood. Protagonist Logan Mountstuart is already dead, and readers relive his life—including pivotal moments in New York City—through his journals, some of which have gone missing.“You’re forced to do a lot of thinking, which is one of the reasons this novel falls into the category of ‘Books I regret never being able to read again for the first time.’”

MIDDLE EAST

Arabia, Jonathan Raban (1979)

“Jonathan Raban is one of the best tour guides you could ever have,” says Wood of the British travel writer. In Arabia, he takes readers through Bahrain, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Yemen, Egypt and Jordan, sharing anecdotes of the characters he meets and friendships he makes. “The Middle East is changing so quickly, and because Raban wrote the books 20-plus years ago, he captured it at a very different time. You get a sense of humor and a bit of a quirkiness—it’s a very fun read.”

CHINA

The Seventh Day, Yu Hua (2015)

Wood’s most recent read, Yu Hua’s The Seventh Day is about a man who meets an untimely death in contemporary China. Unable to afford a burial plot, his spirit wanders the earth. “Every day you learn one little part of his back story,” explains Wood. “Though the first chapter is thoroughly confusing, stick with it because it gains clarity in chapter two. It’s very nuanced, beautifully written and has incredibly compelling characters.”

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