Words, Words, Words: World Book Day (Not Only) for Expats

Bibliophiles worldwide will probably know that 23 April — the highly symbolic date that both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes died back in 1616 — marks World Book Day, a global celebration of literacy and literature.

Though readers aren’t necessarily known to be particularly raucous revelers, we have some ideas for everyone who’d like to join that party: expats, here’s how you can observe the occasion with an international twist!

1) Read a book from your current country of residence.

Let’s start with the obvious: the next time you are looking for some entertainment to spice up your commute, read a book from your adopted country. In the age of free reading apps, owning a smartphone means you have no excuse, as long as you ignore the lure of Tetris, The Sims, or Super Mario Run for a while.

The first level of this challenge consists of picking up any book by a local author — for example, in your favorite genre. For me, historical romances with feisty heroines or gory crime novels involving serial killers usually do the trick. You can work up all your way to “boss level” — reading a famous classic from your destination’s literary canon.

Expats living in China, good luck with the Four Great Classical Novels! The Romance of the Three Kingdoms alone features a word count of 800,000: your next few years of commuting should be covered…

2) Join an expat book club.

If you don’t want to be a solitary bookworm anymore, joining a local book club is the easiest way of enjoying a good book and making new friends abroad. In expat communities worldwide, book clubs are plentiful, including on InterNations.

A brief look at InterNations Groups in various cities reveals the wide range of works that our members are currently discussing: from best-selling page-turners like Gone Girl to popular non-fiction like Sapiens, a “bracingly unsentimental history of humankind” (quoth the New Yorker); from German authors like Hans Fallada (Alone in Berlin) to Kenyan writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (Petals of Blood), there’s bound to be something for every taste!

If there’s no book club in your neighborhood yet — or if you don’t like their reading list — you could also set up your own. Reaching out to fellow expatriates and organizing a joint activity yourself will help you get in touch with even more people. Time to spread the word!

3) Put some travel writing on your reading list.

The most suitable choice for an expat book club is surely a book written by another expat or avid traveler. Travel writing is a literary genre of its own, appealing to our insatiable curiosity for the unknown, the blank spaces on imaginary maps. (“Here be dragons”, they usually say.)

Though Herodotus set out to write a history of the ancient world, becoming the “Father of History” as well as anthropology, his nine-volume Histories is also a fanciful bit of travel writing: translator Tom Holland affectionately calls it a “great shaggy-dog story”. Among other colorful anecdotes, the Greek’s detailed account of the gold-digging giant ants of India might be a case in point.

Fancy something slightly more modern to explore other countries and cultures from your comfy armchair? There are entire bookshops dedicated to travel guides and literature, such as the aptly named Stanley & Livingstone in The Hague or Stanford’s, a veritable London institution.

4) Support local booksellers in your adopted home.

Speaking of bookstores: every now and then, get out and about to purchase the next item on your reading list! Online shopping is awfully convenient, and I do consider e-readers one of the greatest contributions to civilization. However, browsing the shelves is a fun pastime that supports independent booksellers in the bargain.

Even if you don’t speak the local language (yet), don’t panic! Quite a few independent brick-and-mortar shops specialize in foreign language publications and vie with the online competition for customers: they often serve as venues for literary events and meeting points for the expat community.

The most famous example is arguably Shakespeare & Company on the Left Bank of the Seine, right across from Notre-Dame de Paris. Apart from, well, selling books, it runs a non-commercial reading library, organizes creative writing workshops, supports literacy programs in developing countries, and hosts readings by such high-profile authors as Jeanette Winterson, Zadie Smith, or Siri Hustvedt.

5) Go on a literary pilgrimage.

In case that shopping doesn’t match your idea of “getting out and about”, there are other great ways of getting to know your new home through books. Instead of taking a run-of-the-mill guided tour of the city, how about going on a walk with a literary theme?

Here in Munich, some guides conjure up the bohemian life of Schwabing’s writers and artists around 1900, while other places focus on their most famous works or authors: you can follow in the footsteps of Thomas Mann’s German merchant dynasty from Buddenbrooks in the Hanseatic City of Lübeck, or stroll through the streets of Bath alongside Jane Austen.

Planning a “literary pilgrimage” could also be an inspiration for your next day trip or vacation. I must confess that Prince Edward Island, Canada, is mostly on my “bucket list” because it’s home to my beloved childhood heroine, Anne Shirley. Bring on Anne of Green Gables: The Musical, I say.

(Image credit: iStockphoto)

Leave a Reply