On the Road: Literary Scavangings

Reading this, it is likely that you are one of those lucky souls who are yet to be bored to tedium with my endless and elaborate tales of how I’ve just been travelling around North America for the past six weeks and how gosh darn amazing the entire experience was. Instead, this article is going to get down to what really matters: how getting your reading fix on the road can be as much of an adventure as the destination itself.

It is not easy to travel with enough books to keep one’s appetite satiated, certainly not on trips exceeding a few days. Even if your own strength limitations (or indeed, those of your minion) don’t, airlines and their pesky baggage allowances put a firm stop to the expedience of carrying a small library of books with you. Indeed I am here to argue that you shouldn’t even if you could, and by extension am no more presenting an extended advertisement for something like the Kindle than I am for being your own mobile library. The reason is a simple one: this would be cheating. All your prechosen, pre-downloaded novels usually come from known preferences and pleasures and are therefore comforting and familiar; the equivalent of going to Saudi Arabia and eating nothing but pizza. Fortunately, the world is awash with book swaps and exchanges found in hostels, trains stations, or simply created between one traveller and another offering a unique opportunity to discover and explore works far outside of your usual sphere through options being limited and the need pressing.Though of course I in no way mean to suggest that your reading choices are not fascinating, challenging, and exciting more that your literary wish list will still be there upon your return; what we’re hoping to find here are works that you would never have thought to pick up, or indeed have even heard of to begin with.

Admittedly it’s highly frustrating to find a book you have always wanted to read just waiting for you to take it but rather inconsiderately in a language you cannot read (No, For Whom the Bell Tolls is not the ideal text with which to learn French, however big of a Hemingway fan you are). Yet by often denying easy and familiar choices, there is suddenly the need to resort to lesser-known works by authors, or indeed to titles that appear vaguely familiar if not being simply intriguing sounding. I read my first Jodi Picoult novel as it was the only option that was actually in English (Salem Falls, for those of you who are interested), and could not put down Dark Place after its cover roundly boasted how Gillian Flynn was also the award winning author of Gone Girl. Both of these are texts that I am unlikely to have otherwise really come across or earnestly considered, and yet I adored both.

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A delightful and somewhat unexpected consequence of such a take-and-leave culture is how many of the works that accumulate can often be about and based around the location they are left. That is to say, people often take books about the place they’re going with them on the trip, the texts that inspired them to go somewhere in particular or that simply feel fitting to read at the destination. When in Ho Chi Minh City, it was a vaguely surreal experience to pick up a copy of Greene’s The Quiet American and be able to read it in the very café so dramatically bombed in the novel (now a branch of Gloria Jean’s Coffees). In Toronto, Alice Munro’s Dear Life allowed for a queer sense of connection with the city and its surrounds through the pervasive locale of the short stories, also making it somewhat pleasing to leave these texts where they were found, knowing that such a sense of connection and discovery is awaiting the next eager and deprived reader to prowl along the book exchange shelf.

Furthermore, hostel bookshelves themselves are fascinating things for many reasons, not least the sheer wonder of what people chose to bring (and leave) when on their travels, and through this they can act as a social catalyst. In a somewhat book-lite hostel in Montreal, Secrets of the Face: The Chinese Art of Reading through Facial Structure and Features by Lailan Young not only informed me that I have a bucket face and most likely an unhappy childhood (based on my eyebrows) but also managed to unite a ten bed dormitory determined to gain equal enlightenment. Further still, a snow storm in Washington was made quite wonderful with the aid of a case of beer and some rather stirring readings from Quotations of George Washington and – sadly less exciting than its title – Bad Girls of the Bible. Such curiosities brought strangers together and shaped a shared experience that would most likely have otherwise been missed.

There are also far more selfish reasons why you should leave your beloved novels or Kindle at home. Not least that you can be ruthless about shedding weight and leaving finished novels behind; slide it back into the gap you pulled it from days before, or establish a new home for it a few cities down the line, even leave it on the train seat where you finished reading it. Such novels have their own lives of adventure and as such you can feel less guilty about rereleasing them unto the world. Yet there are always risks that, like our own Ms Grayson, you become deeply attached to your acquisitions and require an extra suitcase in order to successfully bring them home. Indeed, the only novel to make it home with me was the one I originally took there, a cheap and beloved copy of The Phantom of the Opera (so I’m not entirely heartless). My favourite reason however, is more of a guilty pleasure in that you can crease the spine, fold the pages right back on themselves to make reading in bed easier, or press down corners when you can’t find a receipt to use as a bookmark. These are liberties that feel like sacrilege and which can be seen on none of the works lining my shelves at home, yet there is something wonderfully comforting and tactile about doing so. Seriously, give it a go.

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If you want to read a lot, leaving behind a guaranteed means of doing that may seem less than ideal, and I can’t deny that there were the odd few days with nothing to read (though let us not forget, there is always the safety net of a bookstore should you become truly desperate). Yet what you gain with variety has huge advantages, a small risk capable of opening up your literary horizons as much as literal ones.

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