A Traveler's Library

The Chronicle of Higher Education brings you Jay Parini (a Middlebury prof and author/poet):
Weeks before any journey, I begin to worry about what books I'll bring. It doesn't matter whether it's a short hop for the night or something more adventurous, I wonder what I'll read en route (if I'm going by plane or train) and what I'll read while I'm there, perhaps sleepless in a hotel room. There's nothing worse than being without the right book in those situations. Yet — given the restrictions and demands of travel — one has to be selective.
What constitutes the "right" book is, of course, a wildly subjective judgment. For me, it depends a great deal on my mood and the context of the journey. An overnight flight from New York to London, for example, has its peculiar demands. It's a trip I've done many times over the past four decades — I've spent nine of my adult years in Britain — so I know the routine. You arrive at JFK around 6 or 7 p.m., hungry but putting off dinner until the flight. You get on the plane a few hours later, having made your way anxiously through security. You sit and read for a while in the departure lounge, annoyed by the screaming children (yours or someone else's). You fret as the plane lifts off, heads into the darkening sky. Soon the stewards come around with drinks and dinner. Then you've got the rest of night, if you're a nervous flier like me, to pass without sleep.
That is when having exactly the right sort of book matters a great deal, and when most travelers turn to the best-seller lists. Bring out the Patricia Cornwell, Stephen King, John Grisham, or whatever latest mystery or thriller vaguely rings your bell at the moment. In truth, almost none ever do. The best sellers usually bore me to death, with their cliché-ridden prose and stereotyped characters. The plots often spin too quickly, in unlikely directions: I can suspend only so much disbelief in a few hours of reading. There is a thriller by Ken Follett that I've read twice, The Key to Rebecca, and I like Eric Ambler a good deal. But it's a rare book of this kind that can overcome the combination of ennui and anxiety.
The object is to find a book that will last about five hours, which means a short book — a novella is perfect, or a collection of stories. I find fiction preferable on planes. That's just an old instinct in operation: I've always read novels or stories on planes, as when I read nonfiction, I'm usually taking notes, and the aura of real work hovers around the project. I don't like to work between midnight and dawn, and that holds when I'm flying in the wee hours. It can be difficult, however, to lose yourself in a good book when you're hurtling along at hundreds of miles an hour, so I've developed a trick. I get myself about three-fourths of the way through a good novel before the journey begins. It's the last quarter of many narratives that most absorbs my attention; I therefore time the reading so that I am at an interesting part as I begin to wait for the plane to board. I hardly know that I'm in an airport. Once buckled in my seat, I can read on the runway as we wait in line for takeoff. As the plane begins to claw its way upward, airborne, I'm in the most engaging stretch of my book. If I've chosen the novel well, and timed my reading to perfection, I'll finish the last pages as we fasten our seat belts to land at Heathrow.
I began traveling in earnest as an undergraduate, heading off to Britain on a decrepit Italian ship in the late summer of 1968. I happen to recall exactly what I was reading: Isaiah Berlin's life of Marx, and the essays of T.S. Eliot. I was beginning the intellectual journey of my life, so to speak, and took it seriously. I still have my copies, with their silly comments in the margins, the covers tatty and stained. I quarreled in my marginalia with Berlin and Eliot, taking a certain jejune pride in my points of view. It took some years before I realized that notebooks worked as well.
That same year, I spent Christmas with a friend's family in an icy, remote village in northern Spain. They were wonderful, but I missed my own family in Pennsylvania. Rather wisely, I had brought with me several books by John Updike, and I spent hour upon hour in my unheated bedroom, gloves on my hands, lost in Updike's early fiction, which evoked the sights and sounds of my home state, with its mild landscape, its gently rolling fields, and the small towns where high-school basketball games mattered desperately. I practically memorized the stories in Pigeon Feathers, still one of my favorite volumes of fiction because of its acute particularity, especially in the title story, which features an adolescent boy in the passion of self-discovery. I read and reread Of the Farm, a splendidly sensuous novella. I even liked The Centaur, which now strikes me as rather forced and dull. Whenever I see those books on my shelf, I can smell the cooking of that Spanish kitchen, where I also often sat at a plain wooden table while my friend's mother fried garlic and fish over a gas stove.
I learned a good lesson there. It often pays when traveling to take along something familiar. I keep a separate shelf in my study for what I think of as "comfort books." These are the texts that I know will keep me happy in strange or awkward settings. At my age now, rereading is often preferable to reading, so I have a small number of deeply loved books that I can rely on. Among the volumes on this shelf are One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez, and the poems of Robert Frost. I can always find more than enough comfort and satisfaction, even challenge, in those pages to get me through a difficult day or two. Márquez, a master of whimsicality, always lifts me into a zone somewhere beyond reality, but nevertheless grounded as well. The poems of Frost, which I know so well, always remind me of home — not a literal place, of course, but the home of language so perfectly aligned with my own sense of the world.
In the early 70s, I journeyed by myself across North Africa, usually by bus, sometimes hitching a ride. I carried with me in my backpack Dante's Divine Comedy in three paperbound volumes, and those proved an immense blessing. I was, then, unfamiliar with poverty of a certain depth and enormity, so the Inferno offered an appropriate analogue. It's useful when the book you're reading as you travel has a certain resonance, so that inner and outer realities touch, however obliquely.
On a long journey, it's also useful to have a decently ambitious but discreet project on hand. Dante's epic was perfect in that respect. I could read the cantos, then read them again, and again. I could take notes in the margins. I could puzzle my way through difficult passages. I could find myself lifted by the poetry, transported. The morning I first climbed the heights of the Paradiso, I was sitting in a cafe by the Mediterranean, drinking espresso, eating yogurt and honey. The light on the sea was unimaginably bright and copper in color. I was warm and happy, at ease, and could fully appreciate the excitement of Dante's pilgrim as he approached the light of God. (I seem to have lost that edition of Dante, and it's probably a good thing, as my marginal notes would now seem embarrassing, and I recall I spilled coffee on the Paradiso in a way that stained the tops of most pages and annoyed me for years afterward.)
I look over my bookshelf and remember certain journeys. I know I was traveling by train through Eastern Europe when I read Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, one of those monumental works of literary scholarship by a European critic of the old school. It always thrilled me to think that Auerbach wrote that book under trying wartime circumstances, without the benefit of a library; he had nothing but his own well-stocked mind for recourse. I doubt that I finished Mimesis — it's a fairly long and dense book — on that trip, but I know it kept me company through several weeks of fairly arduous travel in Poland, Lithuania, and Czechoslovakia (this was before the drawing aside of the Iron Curtain).
If I take a long trip soon, I want to have a similar book with me: something as densely packed, informative, and meditative by an old-fashioned literary historian like Auerbach. Such books are not "difficult" in the way of criticism in the age of poststructuralist theory. You don't get lost in the arguments (and bad syntax) and, accidentally on purpose, lose the book along the way.
We all have a long, imaginary shelf of masterpieces we have not read. For years I was embarrassed by my ignorance of War and Peace, and Tolstoy's massive novel had sat on the shelf, glaring at me. Not until the mid-80s, when I passed a lovely spring on the Amalfi Coast of Italy in a tiny rented house, did I find myself ready to tackle it. I would rise at dawn (we had two babies then) and take my coffee to the terrace. There was a grove of lemon trees behind me, and I could look all the way down the coast from Amalfi to Salerno, the sunlight on the sea like scattered coins. I was absorbed for two months in that astonishing novel, making my first acquaintance with Pierre, Natasha, Bolkonsky, and the rest of Petersburg society. Forever I will associate that story with that place, and that time in my life.
One day, on a desert island, real or unreal, I will read Stendhal's The Red and the Black or Zola's Germinal or any one of the countless other well-known or lesser-known masterworks that have tugged at my sleeve, as if wondering why I won't dance with them. Life is short, but art is long, as the aphorism has it. Too bad about the life thing, but as for art, the longer the better. I look forward to the journeys that lie ahead of me, in the pages of books and on the road itself: times when I will settle happily with a book for a discrete period, in circumstances that may well prove ideal for a certain type of reading.
Link to the article you just read here. Personally, I say you should bring Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel along on your next excursion if you haven't read it.

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