Trip Reading and iTunes U

Just installed a widget to keep track of how I'm doing on the reading challenge,  two books in seven weeks, not too well by the looks of things!

I'm on my third book of the year, and I'll have to get going if I'm going to make fifty by December!  I'm currently reading Syrian Episodes; Sons, Fathers and an Anthropologist in Aleppo in preparation for our trip to Syrian and Jordan. It's an ethnography by John Borneman, an anthropologist I know for  his work on Cold War Berlin. I'm hoping his book will give me some sense for modern Syria. I've already found the introduction helpful as it contextualized the Assad dynasty and explained  the manner in which Syria was founded on a Pan-National Arab identity that stresses the secular rather than the religious cohesion of the state.

I try to read something to prepare for all our trips; a novel, a memoir, something that gives me a sense of the place, the people or the history.

I  read Henning Mankell's detective fiction before heading to Stockholm and Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters before our last trip to India. Novels are neither a comprehensive introduction nor a personal truth, but they can provide an entry point into the excitement of the trip while providing an anticipatory sense of place or people.

I've used memoirs as introductions prior to trips to Iran (Searching for Hassan) and Bosnia (Not my Turn to Die). Autobiography can be useful where the histories are contested because they are, by their nature, a reflection of an individual's experience rather than a definitive expression of historical truth. I don't seem to have  a tolerance for conventional political histories but I can highly recommend iTunes U if you want to develop a firmer historical or cultural understanding of a particular area.  Last September we were visiting Paris and Provence and I realized that my understanding of French history didn't go much beyond, "Let them eat cake" Vichy collaboration and Maurice Chevalier! Rather than pick up an introduction to French history tome I went to iTunes U and started watching Yale University Prof. John Merriman's class, France Since 1871. I loved it! You can download the lectures and learn all about cafe culture, class, regional distinctions, memory and memorials of the First World War as well as contemporary issues such as immigration and national identity.
See France Since 1871 - Video  If you're very earnest you can even take a review of your spoken French while you're at it. Bon d├ępart: beginners' French - Audio Artwork

There is so much available, in 2009 before we went to Rome I looked at Yale's comprehensive class on Roman Architecture which was equally interesting and you can find all of Yale's "open" classes at

What is great is that all of this is free and easy to use. There are full classes, many with video, but also an amazing selection of lectures and audio podcasts. For example,  first I searched iTunes for "Syria", then on the left of the screen I selected "filter by media type",  choosing iTunes U. This gives you a list of all the relevant classes, podcasts or lectures. I'm looking forward to a lecture from UC Berkeley with the Syrian Ambassador to the U.S. speaking on "The U.S. Syia and the New Old Middle East: Confrontation or Cooperation?", see  Public Policy, Politics & Law - Goldman School of Public Policy 

While I was looking for information on Syria I also found this audio podcast from Brown University which would have been a wonderful introduction  for our 2003 trip to Iran. What is great is that they're always introducing something new on iTunes U and the selection is far more comprehensive than it was even a year ago.

Let me know if you find a class that enhances your travels?