Discover more from Your Reading Life
Reading Where the Air is Clear in Mexico City
They say reading transports you to another world.
This week I've been reading Where the Air is Clear by Carlos Fuentes in Mexico City (CDMX) where the book takes place. I don't think I've ever consciously read a book where it takes place even though I daydream about one day reading 100 Years of Solitude in Colombia or The Odyssey island hopping in Greece. I've guessed that the destination would add a lot to the experience of reading the work, and possibly visiting the travel destination.
This week I've been reflecting on how the city has influenced my experience reading the book and also vice versa, how the book has influenced my experience of exploring the city. They say reading transports you to another world. The world between the pages of the book. But what happens when you actually transport yourself to the place it takes place to dive into the pages? What changes?
By transporting myself here to CDMX I take in the city through my five senses. I take in the colors, the lush foliage, the smells, the spaces I eat and sleep in, the vistas of far off, obscured mountains, the bajillions of people and characters and the words they speak, the laughs they laugh, and the extremely varied neighborhoods of the city. It is the “here and now” of the city.
A bit about Where the Air is Clear. Carlos Fuentes published the work in the 60’s and much of it takes places after the Mexican revolution after the turn of the century and follows several people in the upper classes of the city through the eyes of an amorphous, somewhat mysterious Ixca Cienfuegos. While the book spends the majority of the time with the higher classes the author does choose to highlight simple storylines of the lower classes as well. Reading the book you learn of classes, characters, histories, pastimes, occupations and individual and cultural challenges. Struggles between rich and poor, urban and rural, European and indigenous. Revolutionary and revolutionary.
It's not that you can't observe those characters and classes and struggles as you wander the city without reading the book. You most definitely can. But, to me, what I see of those themes is brighter. Bits and pieces are even more specific. Aristocrats used to live on the street behind where we're staying. Some characters found wealth trading and developing real estate along Reforma, the avenue my partner and I walked to get to the Zocalo. Many stores and cafes are in structures that used to be one of several properties owned and lived in by pre revolution aristocrats that they sold room by room while sticking to their long out of date lifestyle like a matriarch in the book.
Especially if your style of travel emphasizes walking and eating as my partner and I’s does or if you don't speak the language or have the time to get to know too deeply the people around you as you explore you'll miss much of what the book points your attention to. Your experience of the city is dimmer. Quieter. Duller. Even if it's magnificent because this city is so, with or with out the reading.
Thanks for reading Your Reading Life! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Much of course depends on the book you choose. I started fairly ignorant and just googled. (Maybe I should have used ChatGPT with a cute prompt like: build for me a short reading list of great literature that take place in Mexico City.) The choice I made is good in that it takes place almost exclusively in the city rather than just the country or partially in the city. It has had its downsides too. The male author's bias covers more male characters and focuses on the higher classes in which he moved (likely as Ixca does in the book). So, as a reader you miss well beyond half of the people that make up this frenetic place.
Regardless of the misses of my selection I've enjoyed the brighter view of the city I've been wandering and loved the context I've used from reading the book to read between the lines of the sidewalks and neighborhoods I've passed through. All in all, I highly recommend complementing your travels with reading some great literature. A richer experience awaits.
What are other great destination + literature pairings? Drop them in the comments.
What are you reading at the moment?