As mentioned earlier, Stephen O’Shea’s excellent Sea of Faith adds a nice angle to its history. He focuses on the interaction of faith, politics, empires and art in the Mediterranean from the advent of Islam to the battle of Malta in 1565. He also travels to many of the lands in question and contrasts current day with the past. This helps us think of the long view, and I imagine it helped him write his history more effectively.
In recent years, I’ve become enamored with a similar approach. Visiting historical sites amplifies the stories I’ve read. Seeing the homes of beloved authors provides a touchstone for further reading. A few years ago, for example, I visited The Mount, one of Edith Wharton’s homes, in Lenox, Mass. Here’s a photo of her mansion from the foundation’s website:
Seeing her home, walking through the room she did her writing in, or the room Henry James stayed in, hearing about life in that day and time from the tour guide, brings to life her novels in a new way. Along with the writing process itself, one can imagine the present scene transposed into those novels and short stories. Edith Wharton based her novel Ethan Frome on an incident she witnessed in the town of Lenox. Staying there made me feel closer to the characters, as strange as that may seem.
When I was in France last May, it was a revelation to see where Van Gogh lived and worked in Arles–the famous cafe, the asylum, the scene of several of his paintings. These pilgrimages tie us to the works, artists and times in ways that go beyond words on the page or images on canvas. Will be adding more photos from my own travels in the future.