In addition to all the homework material that our kids have while on the road, we ask that they read a lot. I keep a record of what all of us are reading in an Excel spreadsheet (see photo) which calculates our progress; number of books, pages, words read, etc. Yeah, this is a bit nerdy but the competition has given the kids incentive to read more. In addition to the classics that they should be reading like 1984, Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, Treasure Island, The Old Man and the Sea, etc., we are sending the books that we are reading their way – books that are set in the countries we are visiting.
There is nothing quite like reading a book while you are in the country that it’s set in. In northern Peru, Kim MacQuarie's The Last Days of The Incas brought Cajamarca to life when pretty much everything from the time of the conquest had disappeared. In southwestern Turkey, whenever we saw Lycian tombs or tortoises plodding across our path or spike-collared shephard dogs, I thought of Louis de Bernières’ Birds Without Wings. In Cairo, we sat in the café in Midaq Alley, absorbing the atmosphere made real in the eponymous book by Naguib Mahfouz.
The books we’ve read have ignited some interesting discussions within our family. In Masha Hamilton’s The Camel Bookmobile, a New York woman volunteers and brings books to remote Kenyan villages on the backs of camels in an effort to improve their literacy. Many of those villages were similar to ones we’d seen while driving across Kenya. What the protagonist learns along the way is that many of the villagers have some very good reasons to not want to learn to read and this intrigued our kids. “Why wouldn’t they want to learn to read?” asked our daughter, which started a discussion on western values. After we all finished another of Mahfouz’ novels, The Thief and the Dogs, our kids tried to understand the motivation of Said, the thief. Was he good? Are bad deeds good if they are done for the right political reasons? My son and I said “no” and my wife and daughter said “yes.” From a parent’s perspective, it’s a win just to be having this conversation with your kids.
We are now in Turkey and both kids are ready to start Birds Without Wings, a sweeping historical novel that follows the lives of the people from a typical Turkish village before, during and after WWI. From that book, we’re sure that the kids will understand why a picture of that Ataturk guy with the moustache still adorns the back wall of almost every business establishment in Turkey. Soon we’ll be on to Greece where we’ll all start on the book we found today at a paperback book exchange. We acquired Captain’s Corelli’s Mandolin, de Bernières WWII book about the Italian occupation of a Greek Island, in exchange for Midaq Alley, which my daughter just finished reading. Time to update my Excel spreadsheet.