Don’t be a tourist. I don’t mean don’t travel; by all means, see the world and explore new places! But don’t be a tourist, defined as “a person who travels for pleasure, especially sight-seeing and staying in hotels.”
That doesn’t sound so bad, but can one really experience a place through simply seeing sights and staying in hotels? No! To truly travel, one cannot be a basic tourist; one must be an explorer, investigating unfamiliar places and actually living in them, even if just for a few days. In France, a tourist might see the Eiffel Tower, but an explorer bicycles around Paris in search of tiny bakeries and the perfect macarons. In London, a tourist will stay safe and dry inside the red double-decker buses, but an explorer would wander the rainy streets alongside the locals until breaking for a steaming cup of tea.
In the same way, a tourist visiting my home state of Arizona will pick up a postcard with a stereotypical desert scene (tumbleweeds, mountains, and a few saguaro cacti thrown in for good measure) but will not realize that there is so much more to this state. Sure, we have the Grand Canyon (all tourists know that) but as majestic as the desert and canyon are, Arizona has so much more to offer! We have haboobs (its not a naughty word, I promise; they are massive dust storms), the most colorful sunsets I’ve ever seen, cities full of attractions, and even snowy mountains! Just the other day I posted a video of myself throwing snow into the air on Instagram and a college friend of mine commented “I thought you lived in Arizona!” Well, I do, but to anyone who just looks at AZ from a tourist perspective, the snow and pine trees are inconsistent with the dusty and hot images portrayed in media and even on our license plates. However, Arizona is more than just “gila monsters and tarantulas”, as some Maine resident so eloquently put it and it is easy to discover this if one puts out the necessary effort as an explorer.
How does this relate to literature? Well, just as one cannot fully experience a place from a few cheap postcards and a couple bus rides past the most famous monuments, one cannot grasp the full significance of a novel from its labels and, I venture to say, its misconceptions.
Take Tolstoy’s self-proclaimed masterpiece Anna Karenina for example. On the cover of a film adaption of the book, it was described as “Tolstoy’s tragic story of star-crossed lovers.” NO. NO NO NO NO NO. THIS IS NOT A LOVE STORY!!!
I’m not sure if the cover designer for this film adaption did not read the book or was just stupid, but either way, he completely missed the point. In zeroing in on the obvious story of the lust-affair (I refuse to recognize it as love) between Anna and Vronsky, the cover designer and potentially the reader/viewer is acting as a tourist, reducing a great work of literature to a mere soap opera, thus doing Tolstoy and him or herself a disservice in failing to grasp the more essential messages of the novel.
For instance, in gasping over the central scandal of A.K., the reader might miss the search for spiritual peace that serves as Levin’s motivation even more so than his desire for a family. Similarly, the conflict between the traditional Russian ways and the industrializing Western practices might be forgotten, erasing any true comprehension of the context of the novel within history and society. More concerning, however, is that in overlooking such essential themes, the reader forgoes the opportunity to make connections between these ideas and those within other works of literature and even within his or her own life. Questions raised by an analytical reading of the text such as “what is the role of desire?” and “is everything motivated by a sense of self-service?” cannot be answered if one is relying solely on the most basic understanding of plot. Certainly the deterioration of morality and the struggle of desires found directly within the affair between Anna and Vronsky is significant, but in mislabelling this as a romance or love between “star-crossed lovers”, the reader runs the risk of missing even these most obvious themes and becoming a literary tourist who is concerned only with the surface. This provides entertainment, just as looking at a postcard or snapping a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower provides entertainment and perhaps even a sense of accomplishment, but ultimately it is not as rewarding as truly dedicating oneself to analyzing and drawing less obvious insights from the novel through literary exploration.
To be a literary explorer is to abandon the beaten path of skimming and summarizing, to delve into a book and search for underlying themes and hidden details. It means to live within the novel, making connections and pondering implications, rather than simply to take snapshots of quotes without understanding their context or characters without examining their motivations. Just as to have a more accurate and full knowledge of the world, one must act as an explorer rather than a tourist, to be a genuinely good reader, one must abandon the shallows of literary tourism and explore the greater depths of analysis.
To close, consider this: If you were to travel to London, what would you most remember: seeing Buckingham Palace or finding the yummiest meat pie in a hole-in-the-wall pub? Or in Paris, would you value seeing the Mona Lisa with thousands of other people in the Louvre or finding a piece of brilliant art for sale by a local? In Arizona, would you remember the scorching sun or the many different climates? In the same way, as a reader, when you finish a novel, will you remember only the most prominent story or will you choose to explore beyond what can be learned from SparkNotes summaries? Ultimately, it is your choice, but as both a traveler and bookworm, I can assure you that playing the explorer is always the most rewarding (and most exciting) role.