The International Writers Magazine: Reading on the road...
Paper Trail An Old Hands Guide to Travelling with
Reading is one of the pleasures of
travel and the road. In between the sights, sounds and people
you meet travelling is a time when you are able to catch up on
the books you received for your birthday or on Christmas from
your auntie. I must read that, you think to yourself, before putting
the book in question on the shelf, where it will gather dust for
What little I know
of Russian literature namely its ability to squeeze any of lifes
pleasures out like water from a rag was gained at the back of
a packed bus. Although perhaps I am being unfair to the authors, given
the circumstances in which I made their acquaintance: Fathers and Sons
and Crime and Punishment are just two of the novels I have read holed
up in a bus seat not dissimilar to the Black Hole of Calcutta.
But while travelling gives you time to read and reflect it presents
its own problems as well. After all, you dont want to read something
too interesting: it may well distract you from paying sufficient attention
to your surroundings. And neither do you want something which fails
to grip you; you want to get your moneys worth.
Then theres the question of size; do you take something light,
which will mean you may finish it even before the airplane arrives at
your destination? Or do you take a lengthy tome, perhaps War and Peace,
which you will never finish and will probably go back on you bookcase
at home? For my part, I foolishly succumbed to this idea, packing away
Homers Iliad, heavy less for its 500 pages than for the fact that
its subject matter the constant references to gory death
lessened its appeal.
If you wisely omit the Iliad, you still need to consider the potential
pitfalls faced by a manageable book: if carrying a rucksack requires
carrying as little as possible, how can you avoid weighing yourself
down? Some obvious ways, such as only bringing along paperbacks will
help. But who exactly packs a hardback?
One way of keeping the weight down is to tear pages out as you go. But
if youre a book lover like me, the thought of doing so seems almost
blasphemous. Even guidebooks perhaps the most utilitarian form
of reading matter I find myself unable to deface.
Theres also the question of what you do with a torn-up book when
you finally finish it. You can hardly expect to swap your half-copy
of Kurt Vonneguts Slaughterhouse Five with your roommate; he wont
understand whats going on. Then again, Ive found that a
full copy will not help him in that regard either. The protagonist,
Billy, manages to travel back and forth through time; somewhere there
is an alien abduction. Its that kind of book. Besides, the few
book exchanges which can be found on the road will not take kindly to
your books defacement: you may well find yourself barred from
swapping yours for another.
Book exchanges and especially in a non-English speaking country
they can also be full of potential pitfalls. Bringing your own
book from home means you can be sure about its quality. But when you
decide to swap it with another at an exchange you need to be prepared.
You dont know what condition the books may be in; in some cases
they are falling apart, which may well prove worse than if the first
half had been ripped out. But more importantly, you can never account
for others taste: book exchanges are always full of the Barbara
Cartlands and Jilly Coopers of this world, with their libraries of romantic
But just as book exchanges can be deeply dangerous places, so too can
they yield gold nuggets here and there. In the middle of Turkey, surrounded
by the weird fairy chimneys and abandoned underground cities which dot
the landscape, I came across a copy of Martin Amiss London
Fields in Goreme. Not exactly what you would expect in a place like
Now I know Amis has been pilloried for leaving his wife and children
and removing all his teeth and that is before we even start on
the literary criticism. I will even accept London Fields may
not be his best novel, but where else can you find a book which manages
to make the idea of boozing in a rough east London pub and playing darts
Although we know a death will occur, at least Amis does not go on about
uniquely awful ways of killing and being killed. Homer, if he ever existed,
has an awful lot to answer for. Maybe it was pretentious, but it had
seemed a good idea at the time to bring along a poem which might put
me in touch with the Hellenic world I planned to pass through. However,
I also rather hoped to meet people on my journey and especially women.
And I badly miscalculated the effect I might have sitting on a beach
reading about Achilles blind rage. Homer is definitely one for
the boys and certainly not a way to meet or impress girls.
So Homer would remain hidden at the bottom of my rucksack unless there
was a compelling reason against.
© Guy Burton 2005
See also Lisbon
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