I just returned from a week in Paris, my first vacation to a city where the primary language was not my own. After a day of adjusting to trying to think in French (and I only know a few basic words/phrases), I was able to put my nervousness aside and enjoy the sights.
What struck me about Paris was its age, how the buildings were mostly short (that is, not skyscrapers) and made of the limestone that had been mined from beneath the city itself. Yet the narrow streets all held secrets, and you could turn a corner and suddenly be in the presence of some building that dwarfed those around it, rising into the sky with gilded domes, but had been invisible from just one street to the left or right, hidden and waiting to be discovered.
Of course that’s not true of all the buildings or monuments. The Eiffel Tower is visible from almost everywhere—and yet it too could pop out unexpectedly at times, just peeking over the top of the skyline from a distance. As one gets near Notre Dame, it’s hard to think there was a time it wasn’t in your view, and it’s harder still to imagine it was ever scheduled for demolition.
Still, my favorite moments were walking around the city aimlessly and seeing what I would find. It didn’t always have to be gigantic limestone buildings topped with statues. Gardens and fountains are scattered throughout Paris, along with museums of all kinds, and even though I spent a week there I feel I missed so much. I imagine I could go back and manage to never walk the same streets I walked the first time. Perhaps it would be a different city the second time.
At some point on this trip—I honestly don’t remember when, but it was possibly on the flight back to the US—I thought about how reading and writing are so much like traveling. I know this isn’t a new idea, but I don’t exactly mean it in the ‘going to new places’ sense. Authors build their worlds from the ground up, as cities are built, and sometimes there are layers of labyrinths underneath the obvious structure. Most authors take great care building the atmospheres, the locations, the characters who inhabit those locations, and how all those elements interact with each other and, in a sense, with the reader.
Readers are the tourists. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Tourists are full of wonder, staring wide-eyed at buildings or people that the inhabitants of the city have long since forgotten to acknowledge. That’s how readers are when they first open a book and see what the author has laid out for them. The plot twists and turns, sometimes leaving a reader disoriented until they stumble upon something grand that leaves them gaping. Or the world may be littered with landmarks that rise above the rest and beckon the reader toward them in a rush.
And much like being a tourist, I’m finding as a reader I like to visit the same books more than once. There’s as much to uncover in a story as there is in a city; sometimes you can’t possibly find it all on the first visit. I think I made this connection while I was reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s introduction for The Birthday of the World and Other Stories on the plane ride home, and I first had the revelation about visiting a book more than once after reading The Left Hand of Darkness a second time. I love that book, but on the second read it felt like a different story altogether, which was a nice surprise; I noticed more of the subtle things that time, could appreciate the way the world was laid out so that you could follow one line of thinking or the other and end up reading a different story each time.
Of course, as with traveling, sometimes it seems silly to want to reread a book when there are so many books in the world worth reading. And why go back to a city when you could visit a new place, one you might like better? After all, our time is limited. In the end, it’s just a matter of choosing your preference. Whether you decide to explore a different book or city, or revisit one you’re familiar with, the nice thing is you’re guaranteed to have a new experience. And isn’t that what life’s all about?