I have always loved places deeply. The way that architecture can effect our actions is extraordinary. I guess that’s why I studied archaeology & classics, to get closer to ancient places or maybe just to geek out about Socrates. But even outside of history, the way our cities are built control much more than the way we walk, always turning at right angles and stopping at red lights. In Pennsylvania, the hills always felt protective and at the same time sheltering. In Indiana, the open prairies make me feel vulnerable and at the same time aware.
A story will be told differently depending on where it takes place and what actions the terrain makes possible. When the character needs to move, can they easily take the sidewalk to get where they are going? Do they need to rely on a bus schedule? Have they ever taken an airplane? How far do they have to drive to see a neighbor or can they not escape seeing strangers whenever they leave the house? When a character looks out their bedroom window, what do they see? What does that tell them about themselves? What does it make them capable of or incapable of?
Ancient texts taught me to consider these aspects of characterization. When a room full of archaeologists read Sophocles, we want to know what the characters had access to and how these resources compared to the rest of Ancient Greece. We look at texts about one city to tell us something about the entirety of the ancient world. Though I have not yet taken a literature class, I imagine these concerns aren’t considered as often.
When I travel somewhere, I love to bring a book about the place I am going, no matter how little of a distance I am travelling. This winter, I brought home 2 AM at the Cat’s Pajamas and sat in a coffee shop on Rittenhouse, looking out the same window as one of the character’s might have. It was chilling. This spring, I found a book called Hoosier Folk Legends that should be an exciting read in Muncie. But a book for pleasure can never compare to reading one of my favorite plays of all time.
After graduating college I joined an archaeological excavation in Thiva, Greece. We were excavating the temple of Apollo on the Ismenion Hill and I’m pretty sure I cried every day out of happiness for where I was (this is not even an exaggeration, my roommate thought it was super annoying). One afternoon I was sitting outside reading the Bacchae, one of my favorite plays because Pentheus flirts with Dionysus because he thinks he’s a woman.
Anyway, in the play Dionysus descends from a hill with all his sorority girls–I mean Maenads–and kegs in tow. His descent from that hill marks the descent of Thebes. The hill is called the Kithairon and is mentioned several times throughout the play. As I was reading this scene, I called over one of the professors on the excavation and underlined the name of the hill with my index finger. “Where is this?” I asked.
He paused for a moment in thought, looked up at the skyline and raised a finger to the tallest hill, not too far from the center of town. “That would have to be it,” he said.
“The one Dionysus came from?”
He looked at the title of my book and smiled a nerdy classicist smile. He knew the weight of his words: “It is.”
I can’t think of a better reading experience. In fact, I think about that reading experience a lot. It taught me the power of place in literature.
Has a space ever effected your reading experience (for better or worse)? Have you ever written a story in a setting you have never been to? Or one that you are very familiar with? What kinds of places do you find most conducive to reading and writing?