Awhile back I groaned at the rap-ification of Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud" in order to promote tourism (but what sort of tourist would be attracted by such a thing?) to the Lake District. In the Chronicle Review, Randy Malamud takes a closer look at the commodification of literary works and sites. It's not a recent phenomenon, born of an obsession with existentialism and code-breaking, but something that began to occur a couple of centuries back:
In the 18th century, travelers began visiting the graves, birthplaces,
and preserved homes of dead literary figures, Watson writes, which led
eventually to "reinventing whole regions of the national map as
'Shakespeare Country,' 'Wordsworth's Lake District,' … 'Dickens's
London,' 'Hardy's Wessex,' and so on."
But some academics say it is a means of interacting with literature which curtails the power of literature itself–snidely suggesting it's a pastime for amateurs:
Watson calls literary tourism "a deeply counterintuitive response to
the pleasures and possibilities of imaginative reading." She describes
"the embarrassment palpable among professional literary scholars over
the practice of literary pilgrimage" because, in the age of Barthes and
Foucault, "only the amateur, only the naïve reader, could suppose that
there was anything more … to be found on the spot marked X." Using a
phrase from Jacques Derrida, she calls the landscape sought by literary
tourists a "dangerously supplementary" text.
The urge to interact with a book in a way that goes beyond just reading it is one I think about a lot– for example, I think it's what drives some of us to be literary critics. (It is also the drive behind fan fiction.) But for those souls too sane to write fan fiction (or literary criticism), taking a trip to the place the book was written, or the place the book is set, can allow them to become some ideal version of themselves inspired by the book. It's the closest they can come to inhabiting the book itself.
A cottage industry aimed at these people has built up in books about literary Paris, but most of them just repeat the same things over and over again– Writers in Paris being an exception, along with The Select Crowd, not to mention the incontournable Thirza Vallois.
Living in Paris, I often come across these traveling readers.
Sometimes they're legitimately seeking a deeper connection to the works
they love, and sometimes they're just a little borderline. Remember
that scene in Julie Delpy's film "Two Days in Paris" where Adam
Goldberg's character sends the Bush-loving Da Vinci Code-cracking
tourists in search of the Louvre into the rough neighborhoods around
the Gare du Nord? Priceless.
A little romantic imagining from time to time is the best thing to spur creativity and wistful contentment. I mean, just last week, walking down the stairs to the bathroom at Le Select, I took a moment to wonder about all the writers who have descended those same stairs to take a leak after drinking too much Pernod, and felt united with them, if not in talent, at least in our common need to pee.
Obviously I'm exaggerating here. (Or am I?) Malamud concludes that before we get sanctimonious about literary tourism, we should consider our own traveling habits.
In fact, I flatter myself that I've invented the perfect mode of literary tourism. When I travel, I always read in situ: Dracula among the ruins of Whitby Abbey, overlooking the River Esk; A Confederacy of Dunces in New Orleans; The French Lieutenant's Woman
in Lyme Regis; "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" on the D Train; "Paul
Revere's Ride" outside the Old North Church. It's the best of both
worlds, making me a tourist and a reader at the same time. Cheap and
easy, no commercial or hermeneutic qualms whatsoever: I recommend it
Meanwhile, I'll get to work on my Beauvoir rap, just in case Paris tourism ever needs a lift. I guess it'll go something like this– "A woman ain't born, she's made, yo/boyeee better be afraid/cause this Second Sex is killah, huh/and this two volume book ain't fillah, whut."