Around the World in Weighty Books
Travel is a frame of mind as much as it is an activity. You can cover continents and see little; you can stay home and experience wonders. Stephen King once wrote that, “books are a uniquely portable magic,” but that’s not the whole story. They’re also a uniquely magical means of transport. Not everyone is fortunate enough to wander the globe full time, so in the interest of well-traveled minds, we’ve put together an interactive map of 20 adventure books.
Click on a route to learn more about it. We gently suggest viewing in full screen.
That’s over 325,000 km of book you’re looking at, enough to go around the world 8 times and still squeeze in a weekend getaway. Over 2 million words as well, not that we’ve had the pleasure of reading them all just yet. Where we hadn’t read the books ourselves, we trawled summaries, corroborated the routes of existing maps, and otherwise scoured the web for every detail available.
You'll notice that some books have been streamlined somewhat. We wanted to focus on the movement of the books, the central narratives. Heart of Darkness is narrated in London, but we focused on the events described in the Congo. Although there are subplots in Lonesome Dove, we stuck to the cattle drive that forms the backbone of the novel. We think it worked out all right.
|Book||Distance in km||Words||Km per word|
|The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn||1,041||109,571||0.009|
|Around the World in 80 Days||39,401||76,104||0.518|
|Eat, Pray, Love||18,632||79,158||0.235|
|The Grapes of Wrath||2,734||144,658||0.019|
|Great Tang Records on the Western Regions||21,241||129,930||0.163|
|Heart of Darkness||1,972||56,776||0.035|
|Life of Pi||19,752||98,783||0.200|
|Mason & Dixon||525||226,489||0.002|
|On the Road||9,507||92,714||0.103|
|The Sheltering Sky||3,901||103,284||0.038|
|The Travels of Marco Polo||30,166||100,630||0.300|
|The Voyage of the Beagle||65,231||111,024||0.588|
Key destinations allowed us to piece together the routes, using a bit of interpretive license when locations didn’t strictly exist. Fiction shares the open road with memoirs and real-life journeys, and you might be surprised by which ones are more ridiculous.
Believe it or not, the top performing adventurer of the bunch was Charles Darwin, beating out the like of Ishmael, Marco Polo, and Pi Patel. His experiences in The Voyage of the Beagle, cover 65,230 km and 9 countries. No-one travelled further, and only Candide, Phileas Fogg, and Marco Polo visit more (modern) countries in their adventures.
Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was the longest work of fiction, clocking in at 41,663 km. It’s a charming irony that the granddaddy of Great American Novels leaves the US immediately and travels relentlessly east.
Even in a modest collection of 20 books, common routes and destinations became apparent pretty quickly. Just about any story involving the Atlantic seems to require passage through the Cape Verde islands. Robinson Crusoe, Ishmael, and Charles Darwin all passed through, and Candide likely did as well.
Top performers on land were San Francisco, New York, Buenos Aires, Singapore, Paris, and Mumbai, all of which served as hubs for their regions. Even the most fantastical stories are bound to the romance of certain places.
Kindred spirits and unlikely meetings
The project has highlighted some unexpected crossed paths. In the Americas, Sal Paradise (On the Road) and Phileas Fogg (Around the World in 80 Days) followed almost exactly the same route across the USA, although in opposite directions. Candide, Ishmael, and Charles Darwin all hung out in or near Buenos Aires. Jack Kerouac thundered through St. Louis while Huckleberry Finn and Jim drifted silently past.
In Asia, Marco Polo, Phileas Fogg, and Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) each passed through Mumbai. Marco Polo and Xuanzang (whose travels inspired the Chinese class Journey to the West) trod the same Silk Roads centuries apart. Pi, Polo, and Fogg each sailed the Strait of Malacca and past Singapore. Even stories can bump into each other from time to time.
The project also unsurfaced an unexpected data point: book speed. Using distance travelled and word count, we were able to calculate the ‘speed’ of different books in km per word. Candide (0.871 km per word), The Voyage of the Beagle (0.588 km per word) and Around the World in 80 Days (0.518 km per word) were the fastest books.
Don Quixote (0.003 km per word), Dracula (0.007 km per word), and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (0.009 km per word) were some of the slowest. If you’ve ever wondered why certain books feel like an induced coma, this may well have something to do with it.
Windows on the world
The right book can induce a seismic shift in the reader — how you see the world, how much of it you see — and part of the trick is knowing which one to pick. We hope you find this project interesting, even useful. If you notice any mistakes, or have any suggestions, by all means get in touch. No promises, but we’ll try to keep this project going.
For anyone interested in the map code, you can view it here. Everything right with it is thanks to Andrew Bridge, anything wrong can be chalked up to me.