The books we carry

Listen Robert, going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.

I had read it before but couldn’t resist the offer of a free book. To be sure it had seen better days; a rumpled paperback copy of The Sun Also Rises. Certainly of no pecuniary value; as well-travelled as an old suitcase, its loose leaves stuck back in place at different times with tape and glue. And like a battered steamer-trunk it bore the marks of its passage around the world; a price written in some unknown currency, the stamp of a second-hand bookstore in Delhi, and an inscription inside the front cover explaining its most recent rehabilitation. The message read:
The mother of all piss trips
Bought and repaired 13/11/2011 for INR150 from a street vendor in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India by J B Pearce and S G Stephens
The book had made its way to Nepal in a fellow traveller’s backpack. Now I was its guardian, for the time it would take me to read its yellowed pages at least.

Reading and travel, what an exquisite pairing. With so much in-between time – long journeys and long waits, on trains and planes, at bus stops and borders – there is finally time in life for reading to one’s heart’s content. Then there are the relaxing times – a deserted beach, a crowded cafe, a park bench – when the only way the moment could possibly be improved is by a good read. A symbiotic relationship, the books we read influence our travel and the places we travel to influence what we read. Even the juxtaposition of reading something completely unrelated to the place may inspire unexpected insights. At best the two get wrapped up in each other until the experience of reading a book becomes part of the experience of travelling and you can’t separate the memory of one from the other. Hesse’s Steppenwolf thereby recalls a leaky tent on a glacier in the Karakoram mountains and a French farmhouse brings to mind Hugo’s Jean Valjean.

I picked up Hemingway’s story of the lost generation again in a charmless room at the Hotel Potola in Thamel, Kathmandu’s backpacker ghetto. I started reading to the sound of ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ reverberating through the wall from the Nepalese cover band playing in the bar next door. Before Jake and Bill had left Paris though I left the Potola, taking a bus to Pokhara. I tried reading on the bus but the road was winding and I felt sick so I contented myself with staring out the window. The landscape resembled a topographical map; contour lines marked out in terraces across the hillsides. The thought of the farmers trying to carve enough food off the steep slopes to live off put me in a reflective mood and the journey passed quickly.

From the desire to read about the country we are in, to the occasional necessity of reading whatever is on offer, where we are impacts what we read. On well-travelled backpacker circuits certain titles achieve cult status and become almost required reading. The kind of book whose title gets suffixed with yet when someone asks if you have read it. As if the idea that you might travel to x without reading y is inconceivable. In South-East Asia every street-vendor hawking photocopied books seems to have a copy of The Beach or Mr Nice. Shantaram and A Fine Balance populate the shelves of Bombay’s book-stalls. In South America it’s Marching Powder, The Motorcycle Diaries, and Love in the Time of Cholera. More generic, less location-specific ones seem to pop up time and again; Papillon, Freakonomics, On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

The hotel in Pokhara had glorious balconies that caught the afternoon sun, perfect for reading. In between planning a trek, walks along the lake, and beers at bars with names like Bullet Bar, Blues Bar and Cafe Amsterdam, I went fishing with Jake and Bill in the Pyrenees, enjoying their conversations for the second time, picking up nuances I had missed the first time round.

Off the beaten path the availability of books decreases just when the need for reading material is at its most acute. One finds oneself reading material that might be rejected in less pressing circumstances. This lack of options may enforce the discipline to conquer long-neglected classics or to be pleasantly surprised by a particularly esoteric tome. Staring glumly at a collection of dusty titles in a bookshop in Tirana, I picked a book by the only author I recognised – R H Tawney. The Acquisitive Society had been required reading for a paper on political philosophy at university but I had never read Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. I immersed myself in it on a bus to Pristina that kept breaking down and was richly rewarded. Yet I almost certainly would have never have got past the introduction had a copy of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo been at hand. The same deprivation has at times resulted in less palatable literary meals. A mountain cabin, poor weather, and only one English language title. It had to be Twilight didn’t it? I was infuriated by the prose and unable to put it down. Fortunately the weather improved before I was hooked and started after the sequel.

Travelling light for the trek, Jake’s travelogue was the only luxury packed into a small rucksack with some clothes, a rented sleeping bag, torch, knife, water bottle, a few bits and pieces and several bags of peanuts and buffalo jerky. The fiesta came to a climax in a chilly teahouse clutching a mountainside somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas. Swaddled in the bright yellow sleeping bag, my world shrank to the circle of blue LED light illuminating the disintegrating novel. Outside, night crept out of the shadows and a cold fog descended on the valley but I sweltered under a scorching midday sun.

With so much time available for reading, and the consequences of running out so dire, it is hardly surprising that a backpack can be filled with more books than anything else. Once read however, the enforced anti-materialism that comes from carrying your house on your back insists that all but the most precious volumes be offloaded. And the best way is by trading for another book. An integral part of traveller etiquette, book trades can be a simple transaction or the foundation for a lasting friendship. And, at times, an act of political dissent.

I was 21 and travelling in Myanmar. One evening on Mandalay Hill a monk approached and after a short conversation asked if I had any books I could give him. I didn’t but agreed to meet him the next day. Back in my room I went through my bag and wondered what would be suitable. Brett Easton Ellis didn’t seem appropriate. George Orwell’s Burmese Days on the other hand seemed perfect. “I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” the monk said the next evening when I gave him the book. His words stuck because of the quaintness of his book-learned English but also because his expression of gratitude made me uncomfortable. For me it was a simple gesture but for him it was obviously something much more. Couldn’t we send you a box of books when we get home? No, they would never be delivered. Besides, it might attract the wrong kind of attention. I took his email address but it only ever bounced my messages.

Whether entered into gratefully or out of desperation, certain rules of conduct should govern the transaction: it should be conducted graciously – without reference to the relative value or merit of the books being exchanged. One for one is the only appropriate ratio of exchange – except where a book is being gifted. Once read a traded book should always be passed on again. The guilty presence of a couple of inexcusably dog-eared volumes sticking out like another dog’s appendage on my bookshelf at home attests to this. I was too selfish to part with them again and they lurked in my pack until I got home. Their presence shames me.

Considering the possibilities that stem from the act of acquiring and reading physical copies of books while travelling it was with some trepidation that I bought a Kindle. Would Hemingway have the same poignancy read in a digital format as from a ragged paperback? I would cut down on weight by eliminating the piles of books from my backpack but what else would I be missing out on? I needn’t have worried. I still have my Kindle – it’s in the pile of books in my backpack. Besides, what book ever ran out of battery?

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5 Comments on “The books we carry”

  1. Terence Hayden says:

    Good one. And better a slab of books than a slab of raw venison in the backpack….

  2. sarahjones14 says:

    Thanks for posting this. Books and travel are the perfect couple. I try to read the classics of the place I’m visiting but also love the juxtaposition read too – I read War and Peace during 4 months in SE Asia. It was perfect because I doubt I’d have gotten round to it otherwise and the long prose detailing Russian aristocracy only helped to highlight the simplicity of Laos farm life. I left it in a backpackers in Sydney. I hope to God someone read it and didn’t roach the cover!

    • nzcampbell says:

      Haha roach the cover! Brilliant. An earlier draft of this post mentioned a copy of Keith Richard’s autobiography which bore evidence of its dual purpose as a rolling tray. The earlier draft was really just me reminiscing about the actual physical copies of books that I had come across travelling and their various states of disrepair.

  3. chris022 says:

    I do wonder what the Kindle will change. Like yourself with the book on religion and capitalism there are books that have rewarded me richly when ‘reduced’ to reading them. With my Kindle now though I would never have read them preferring to choose juicier titles first.


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