My life is defined by books. I’m a glutton for them. I gulp them down at incredible speeds. My greatest problem with traveling, as someone who does not own an e-reader and for whom the prospect of buying one would involve figuring out in which month of the year I want to choose between eating and paying rent, is that my travel companions have to be carefully chosen for density of type, re-readability, whether it’s available for 99 cents at Goodwill, and many other important variables which I’ve been working on scientifically since the time 7-year-old Heather only packed four outfits and six pairs of underwear for a two week international trip because she needed the other three quarters of the suitcase for her Boxcar Children books and a science encyclopedia. Books don’t need charging, they hold up well to getting soaked by rain, and escaping into a story jives nicely with escaping to another place. They’re inexpensive and comforting in strange places. Some people believe that you should use these things called other people to keep you company while traveling. I personally prefer books.
My top 5 travel books are as follows in no particular order.
1) “L’Oeuvre,” by Emile Zola, in the original French. The immense perk of this book, besides the fact that it’s in miniscule type and interminable, is that it makes you want to do a lot of things besides reading it. I need this! I was assigned to read it during a part of my life when people were still very much a terrifying thing for me, and traveling was even scarier, and it resisted me when I tried to escape into it. If you’re on a train you suddenly appreciate the landscapes. If you’re in an airport you make a detailed cross-cultural study of international taste in travel pillows, with detailed notes (Russians bedazzle theirs). In cafés you read three pages about the tortured artistic soul and look super sophisticated to the cute barista and/or Belgian demoiselle with a promising alternative lifestyle haircut but then devote the rest of your coffee break to writing bad love poetry to Belgian demoiselles on napkins. And then you talk to the Belgian demoiselle! And then in the middle of the night you suddenly binge on it for no apparent reason. (I found myself reading passages, rereading them, and then reading them aloud to pigeons in churchyards because the French was so beautiful.) I carried it around like a security blanket against interacting with other people and then it made me interact with other people. I owe Zola a debt.
2) “The Wee Free Men” by Terry Pratchett. I have very fond memories of sitting in the back of a minivan aged 11 as my mother tried to navigate a manual shift with no 3rd gear on the wrong side of the road during the family trip to Ireland that we took during the brief span of time when we had money for family trips to Ireland. In a desperate attempt to make our reading material last longer, my parents decreed that my sister and I could only read books out loud, and this one is full of very satisfying Scottish accents, as well as a strong female protagonist armed with only a frying pan long before Tangled stole that idea. It’s smart and funny, as with everything Terry Pratchett writes, and involves feminism and foulmouthed shitfaced tiny blue fairies in kilts. And also I got to yell “Crivens!” a lot in a bad Scottish accent which is entertaining when you’re 11 and obnoxious, or 22 and obnoxious and nostalgic, or additionally 22 and working at a daycare where you can’t swear conventionally. Now that I’m older I would maybe read Monstrous Regiment out loud instead, which is smarter, funnier, more feminist, involves a lot of drag, and has better battle scenes, but this one has sentimental value.
3) All the Harry Potter books on audiobook, preferably out of order, optimally with one passenger in the car who has never read the books before. Nothing makes a 22 hour roadtrip pale in comparison like a 57 year old man making uninformed remarks about our generation’s holy books; pausing them every five minutes to explain backstory extends them greatly; I am never not in the mood to hear more Harry Potter.
4) “In the Name of the Rose,” by Umberto Eco. It’s fantastic, if you’re like me and love history and semiotics and 10-page tangents about medieval theology and the development of attitudes towards scientific enquiry before the Renaissance. Parts of it slyly draw the reader’s attention to the fact that we haven’t gotten as far out of the medieval era as we might like (suppression of information to defend orthodoxy, anyone?) Plus, someone’s killing all the monks, and Eco’s writing makes you need to know why. It’s an intelligent book and a long one. It lasted me a solid two weeks of wandering around my relatives in northern Europe and I learned a lot of things and if you like it you should also read “An Instance at the Fingerpost” by Ian Fain. That one’s another historical murder mystery and this time you learn all about Restoration England. Spies! Intrigue! Terrible medical practices! Heresy! Murder! Small type! Availability at thrift shops! It lasted a week and a half!
5) A blank one, with lines. One of my favorite travel companions is the travel journal I’ve kept for the past three years, especially since I enjoy traveling alone and don’t have anyone to process my experiences to en route. It can be anything: I like pocket Moleskines for accumulating little details throughout the day, like paintings I liked or particularly eloquent graffiti I spotted in a bus station ladies’ bathroom stall, and a larger journal for when I’m lying on a hostel bed at the end of the day writing everything down to the light of my cell phone because British hostels haven’t discovered reading lights. I write down the people I met, the food I ate, whether or not I prefer neat grid-cities (Amsterdam) or insane tangled cities whose maps look like a two year old threw a tantrum and pelted his spaghetti all over the place (London), doodles of rock formations spotted while hiking, the beauty of a color wheel of Repetto ballet flats on a department store display… If you feel like you’re having a shit day and the trip wasn’t worth it and the fact that you’re traveling alone means everyone hates you and you’ll be forever alone with your cats and won’t even have money to be ranting about it to pieces of paper in a cheap ass youth hostel in Dover where it is fucking raining and your roommates are a forty year old Serbian man and a Danish couple having moany sex, the travel journal has magical soothing properties whereby you only write down the good things that happened, thereby elbowing the shit out of your memory. This is one good book to have.
What’s your favorite travel read? Tell me in the comments!