A few weeks ago, James of James Reads Books posted a Sunday Salon about literary pilgrimages. James defines literary pilgrimage as a “trip taken specifically for book related reasons” that “involves staying away from home at least one night”. I left a comment about my own journeys, but I’d like to share more here.
New York City
In May 2012 I took a short trip with my aunt and uncle to New York City. I didn’t consider the trip a literary pilgrimage at the time, though it does fit the definition as the primary purpose of the trip was to visit the 5th Avenue library along with a number of bookstores. This was the first really spectacluar library I ever visited. My favourite bookstore was a children’s booktore, Books of Wonder, home to a wide selection of new books, rare books, signed books, and other related paraphernalia. Visiting McNally Jackson was a neat experience, as my city is home to the flagship McNally Robinson. I also thought the Scholastic Store was a lot of fun – younger me would have spent the whole day there. Walking past the big publishing houses gave me a bit of tingle, thinking about what goes on inside those buildings (the romanticized bit, where wonderful stories are coming together to be shared with the world). Even though the trip lasted only four days and I was ill the whole time (which meant I didn’t manage do everything I wanted to), I did visit the sites I wanted to see most. New York is one of the few cities I definitely intend to visit again in the future.
Last August I visited Oxford. Unlike New York, I considered the trip a literary pilgrimage from its conception. The primary purpose was to do some Tolkien-related site-seeing (including visiting his grave – I never visit graves, but this was important to me), and to do other children’s literature related site-seeing. I do realize that Tolkien would likely have thought this sort of ‘tourism’ absurd. For my part, I will say the experience of visiting locations is, for me, less about knowing the author and more about knowing the place that gave birth to these stories. I also wanted to pay my respects, as I believe Tolkien accomplished an incredible feat in the creation of his mythology, which has come to be deeply important to me. This website offers a 360° virtual tour of a number of Oxford locations important to Tolkien.
On the morning of my first full day in the city, I visited Blackwell‘s Art and Poster Shop, In the Music shop, and the Norrington Room (click for another incredible 360° view!). I have to agree with their self-description as “one of the finest bookshops in the world”. I spent an hour browsing just in the Norrington Room – so many niche academic books I would never find elsewhere! And there were still three more floors to explore. I returned to the store every day during my stay, increasing my TBR list by ~20%. After lunch, I took a 2.5 hour river cruise down the Thames. I’m certainly not the target audience of this company, but they offered what I was looking for and I had a very nice time, chatting with an elderly woman and the boat operator. In the afternoon, I visited Tolkien’s home on Northmoor Road and his grave. Looking back, I can’t believe I did all this in one day!
I decided to walk to Wolvercote Cemetery, stopping by Tolkien’s house at 20 Northmoor Road on the way. The man at the hostel, whom I asked for bus directions, thought I was crazy when I told him I would just walk, but I knew it wouldn’t take me more than an hour and I love to walk through a beautiful city. As I began my walk, I felt a bit unprepared. I realized I wanted to bring something so I stopped in a flower shop along the way and picked up a little jar of flowers. Shortly after I left the shop, it began to rain heavily. I nearly made it to Tolkien’s house, but the rain was strong and I didn’t want my flowers to get too damaged so I stopped just on the streetcorner for a bit under a tree, then continued when the rain lightened.
Visiting Oxford was my great literary pilgrimage. I would love to live there someday. I hope to take a literary pilgrimage to Paris in the future, to feed my presently-dormant interest in the Lost Generation and begin to explore French literature. Have you ever taken a literary pilgrimage, or made a special book-related trip? Do you have any plans for one? Please share!