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The International Writers Magazine
: Reading on the road...

The Paper Trail – An Old Hand’s Guide to Travelling with Books
Guy Burton

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 another year.

What little I know of Russian literature – namely its ability to squeeze any of life’s 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 don’t 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 money’s worth.

Then there’s 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 Homer’s 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 you’re 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.
There’s 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 Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five with your roommate; he won’t understand what’s going on. Then again, I’ve 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. It’s that kind of book. Besides, the few book exchanges which can be found on the road will not take kindly to your book’s 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 don’t 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 slush novels.

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 Amis’s London Fields in Goreme. Not exactly what you would expect in a place like that.

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 sound sexy?

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

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