It’s commonly said that reading has the power to take you anywhere, but books with a strong sense of place take that to a whole new level. Part of Baldwinsville librarian Holly Nichols’ reason for giving away copies of J.R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar for World Book Night (which I wrote about here) was the memoir’s New York setting.
I especially enjoy reading books set in cities I’ve lived in or visited; even if it’s just a street mentioned in passing, there’s something exciting about that sense of recognition that shapes my reading experience. I first read Janet Fitch’s White Oleander in high school, before I had a chance to explore much of Los Angeles beyond my own suburban backyard. Revisiting it years later, after I’d become much more familiar with the vast spread of communities that make up the greater LA area, felt like reading a different book. Even though I always found the main character relatively unlikeable, by connecting with the landscape, I connected with the narrative.
White Oleander is perhaps an extreme example, considering I’m from LA and the setting is such a prominent part of the story, but the feeling holds true for books set where I haven’t spent as much time. I read Jean Hanff Korelitz’s Admission, set at Princeton University, while I was a summer intern at a nearby company. Though I was town for only eight weeks, reading the novel while I was there provided an unlikely sense of connection with my adopted summer home. More recently, I read the San Francisco-based Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, and while it was plenty enjoyable on its own, reading it on the plane back to Syracuse from San Francisco made it like an extension of spring break.
Appropriately enough, even my earliest awareness of SU came from a book—the university got a few mentions in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Catalyst, which I read in middle school.