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The International Writers Magazine: On Travel Books

Pulp Friction: Travel Book Exchanges Abroad
• John M. Edwards
JOHN M. EDWARDS spends as much time reading on the beach as sightseeing restaurant menus and ogling swimsuit models, so he seeks ubiquitous “Book Exchanges” throughout the world. . . .


I love the smell of old paperback books.

In fact I love the musty mildewy odor so much--redolent of fall leaves that go from green to red to gold in the fantasy world of olfactory memory (much like Proust’s “madeleines”)--that I became an editor at Pocket Books, the very first paperback publisher.

There I frequently raided their book closet for rare valuable tomes, such as hardboiled potboilers from the fifties and outdated movie tie-ins, now long gone after a dreadful move from my folks’ mansiony digs in colonial New Jersey, after they chucked most of our ephemeral reading materials in a Dumpster (™). Dell, Signet, Ace, you name it.

For someone who wants to become a writer (or as Barton Fink crazed, “a writah!”), I found the job of “Production Editor”--(often described in newspaper Want Ads and “Monster” as “from manuscript to bound book”)--not only hard as hell but invaluable for learning “consistency,” “grammar,” “punctuation,” and “style.” In other words, the travel writer’s worst nightmare, most of them settling for ironic Byronic vulgaris eloquenta over Flaubert’s les bons mots. You also have to be a dynamite line editor, a mean copyeditor, and a flawless proofreader all at the same time.

Hence, in the publishing biz, it is not considered human to make mistakes.

I mean it: not any at all.

But still, if you work rapido, you had plenty of time to quickly read all the books in your office, from the Folger’s Shakespeare library series to Star Trek (all series) to Hardy Boys to Nancy Drew.

Or, Clive Barker.

And yet on most days you could just lock your office door and chainsmoke with impunity, while reading Rousseau, who invented the idea of the “Noble Savage.” (This was in the halcyon days right before the passage of the “No Smoking” laws which wrecked the economy of United States, turned our airports into international danger zones, and outsourced most of our best and brightest wayfarers and expatriates.)

But after the unconstitutional law went into effect in Manhattan at Rockefeller Center’s Simon & Schuster Inc Building on Avenue of the America’s, I used the totalitarian edict as an excuse to quit abruptly and follow my druthers traveling around Europe for several years with a backpack.

While on the road, I read everything (except Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”) I could get my damned hands on in the marvelous hostels set up almost everywhere en route. Nothing too challenging, though: an old condensed copy of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” plus loads of Ludlum, Sheldon, and King.

But occasionally on the gringo trail of the travel-bugged cognoscenti, you came up with real winners, such as “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” (by Italian fabulist Italo Calvino) or “The Dwarf” (by Swedish Noble Laureate Per Lagerkvist). Whoah now, what’s this? “Paradise Lost”!

The golden rule is, when wanderlusting, to look real smart and trade books with other travelers, then talk about them on budget beach resorts worldwide. Since everybody starts out on their trips with too many books packed away anyway, for reasons of stalwart stamina most of these bestsellers must eventually be chucked out. I call this “ejection.”

Nobody ever really likes throwing out books (shades of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”), when they can easily give them away. For example, in karst-studded Krabi, Thailand, one of the best beach sandtraps in the world, I met an elderly but fit German backpacker, resembling my artist friend Yoyo Friedrich (who during the 1960s at the Supper Club in Hamburg, Germany, “danced to the Beatles every night!”). This Dopfelganger offered me a bunch of spy novels, but then wanted me to pay for them.

No dice, pal, keep ‘em!

Also, many people give away their issues of Fodor’s, Frommer’s, and Lonely Planets at the ends of their dream vacays, although some of them have pages ripped out and are heavily notated with useless and cryptic recommendations.

“This is a good place to drink!”

Or, my personal favorite: “It’s sooo cheap!”

Almost everyone, carrying backpacks like “Cecil Turtle,” says they are in “Import-Export” (an international euphemism for “chronic unemployment”), so there is plenty of time to tackle Joyce’s “Ulysses” or whip through Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” Even better, Dickens’s “Great Expectations.”

Or, the Classics—try Pliny the Elder. . . .

Unfortunately, there are not really any great travel novels—yet. (Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim” doesn’t count.) But if you haven’t read it, Alex Garland’s “The Beach” makes riveting retro reading. And, of course, “Prague” is really about Budapest. Need we say more?

Bruce Northam, co-editor of my upcoming literary annual, “ROTTEN VACATIONS,” says, “The first thing I pack before my trip is myself.” But I say, “The first thing I pack before my trip is enough books to survive a long-haul No-Smoking international flight.” (The reason everybody acts so suspicious in Customs is that there is no longer anyplace to light up at most airports, save the restrooms, quickly facing a fine while covering up the evidence with a meaningful pst.)

P.S. Don’t forget to bring along a “discard” book to avoid the third-world-style “southpaw swipe.”

Now, we get to the good stuff.

What travelogues, euphemistically known in Barnes & Noble as “Travel Essays,” should you bring? Anything by the following authors: Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, Norman Lewis, Peter Mathiessen, Redmond O’Hanlon, Pico Iyer, Tony Perottet, Rolf Potts, and Tony Horowitz. Or if you like antique diction and preposterous sitches, try Peter Fleming’s “Brazilian Adventure,” Sir Fitzroy Maclean’s “Eastern Approaches,” Graham Greene’s “Journey Without Maps,” Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts, or anything by Evelyn Waugh, fact or fiction.

In one deft trade I made in Paris, where I expatriated myself for a couple of years, I traded with a friend from SERVAS (a hospitality-exchange program affiliated with the UN) an English-language copy of “L’étranger” by Albert Camus for one of the best books I’ve ever read, “Down and Out in Paris and London", in which the main character, obviously Orwell himself, works as a “plongeur” (dishwasher) to make ends meet. Also, I traded in my massive copy of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” (La Récherche du Temps Perdu) for a copy of a book I could not believe I had never read before—when way back in high school I was already an ardent Hemingway addict—“A Moveable Feast.”

Unfortunately, when I was working for Emerging Markets Magazine covering the African Development Bank annual meeting in Cote d’Ivoire, I brought a copy of David Lamb’s “The Africans,” seemingly filled with what looks like classified information and banned throughout Africa, but I couldn’t find anyone brave enough to make a decent trade. Say, a copy of Hergé’s “Tintin au Congo,” the only book in the Tintin series, still wildly popular in Africa, that is actually banned in United States!

© John M. Edwards, June 2013

BIO: John M. Edwards, an award-winning travel writer and has written for such magazines as CNN Traveler,, Islands, and North American Review.
Dynarama:RIP Ray Harryhausen
John M. Edwards

Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest movie ever made!

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