Traveling Bookworms

Posted by on Apr 17, 2012 in General Travel, India, Norway, Rwanda, Turkey | One Comment

I adore books. One of my favorite things in the whole world to do is to spend an afternoon in a bookshop, leafing through the pages and breathing in their smell. (Side note: this is why I find the rise of e-books to be so distressing. When was the last time anyone felt more relaxed after sitting in front of a computer (or an iPad) for a few hours? By the way, is it contradictory of me to keep a blog and also hate the idea of reading on a computer? Hmm.) Unfortunately, working in a large law firm is not conducive to reading much other than cases, the other side’s briefs, a few articles, and Above the Law. In my pre-trip, BigLaw life, I was able to read all of about five pages of a book in bed before falling asleep, and maybe a few more on my commute, and that was it. I was lucky to get through three books in a year. It was tragic.

Tops among the “Reasons Our Big Adventure Ruled” is the time it gave us to read. During our travels, I was able to read so much that I had to regularly replenish my supply of books whenever I found an English-language store. I would also snag an interesting book whenever we stayed in a place that had a bookshelf  available for guests (I’m pretty sure that was okay–if I was supposed to return the books to these places, I apologize. For what it’s worth, I did leave the books behind in other hotels for the guests there, so it’s not like I kept them…). If I had to tally the total number of books I read over the past year, we would probably be talking mid-range double digits. It was wonderful.

In an effort to dig a little deeper into the places we were visiting, I tried whenever I could to read books that were set in or near our location. Sometimes, the particular book I selected was not terribly intellectually stimulating, but did manage to give me the heebie-jeebies. For instance, in Norway I read Jo Nesbo’s “The Snowman,” a mystery about a serial killer in Oslo. It was a gripping read, but talk about spooky…

Pierre and I atop Holmenkollen.

Pierre and I atop Holmenkollen, the ski jump featuring prominently in the book.

In a similar vein, while we were staying at the Hotel des Mille Collines (better known as “Hotel Rwanda”) in Kigali, I read “An Ordinary Man,” former Mille Collines manager Paul Rusesabagina’s autobiographical story about his efforts to save Tutsis and moderate Hutus during the genocide in 1994. It was fascinating, though more than a little creepy, to read about the windows being blown out in the room across the hall from where I was sitting reading the book.

Hotel Rwanda.

Hotel Rwanda.

Other books I read required a bit more time and energy. Before we went to Turkey, I tried to get a flavor of what we would experience by reading Orhan Pamuk’s “My Name is Red.”  Two of my main takeaways from the book were: (1) Istanbul is really, really cold (which was true), and (2) Pamuk is scary smart. My head was swimming every time I put the book down, trying to grasp everything I had just (slowly, carefully) read. Reading that book was a challenging, beautiful, richly textured experience, much like Turkey itself.

In Turkey. (Efes, not Istanbul, but whatevs.)

In Turkey. (Efes, not Istanbul, but whatevs.)

I’m embarrassed to admit that my “get ready for India” book was none other than “Eat Pray Love.” I know. I resisted reading this book for a long time, but finally got curious enough about Elizabeth Gilbert’s experiences in India that I caved and bought it. As I expected I would, I found the book annoying on many levels, particularly because I found the whole premise to be a sham. Gilbert portrays her story as an accidental voyage of self-discovery, but in fact she pitched the idea to her editors and secured a deal before she left, making the whole journey seem contrived. I’m pretty sure that I, too, could find myself and discover the secret to happiness while traveling if I had a book deal riding on it.

That said, it was a well-written and entertaining read, and there was one quote had me smiling and nodding my head: “. . . Traveling is the great true love of my life. I have always felt . . . that to travel is worth any cost or sacrifice. I am loyal and constant in my love for travel, as I have not always been loyal and constant in my other loves. I feel about travel the way a happy new mother feels about her impossible, colicky, restless newborn baby – I just don’t care what it puts me through. Because I adore it. Because it’s mine. Because it looks exactly like me. It can barf all over me if it wants to – I just don’t care.” Well said, Ms. Gilbert.

We didn't go to an ashram, but we couldn't avoid getting a little spiritual.

We didn't go to an ashram, but we couldn't avoid getting a little spiritual.

When we came home for Thanksgiving, my mom loaned me a stack of books by Indian and Indian-American authors. I think she was trying to tell me something. These are some of the books I should have read when we were heading to India (even if some of them partially take place in other countries): “A Fine Balance,” by Rohinton Mistry; “The Namesake,” by Jhumpa Lahiri; “The Inheritance of Loss,” by Kiran Desai; “The Mistress of Spices,” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. She also lent me “Out Stealing Horses” by Per Petterson, which I expect will be a slightly more enriching piece of Norwegian literature.

Not everything I read related to where we were in the world. I devoured books like Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible” (set in Congo, though Pierre and I both noticed many similarities to what we experienced in Rwanda), “Room,” by Emma Donoghue, and “Just Kids,” by Patti Smith. Of course I loved Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run,” the book that helped start the barefoot running revolution, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” was a level-headed, philosophical, and extraordinarily well-written book that moved me from being a pescatarian to a complete vegetarian.

Perhaps the most memorable read of the past year was Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist,” which I stumbled across on a bookshelf in our apartment in southern France. I’d heard so much about it, but had somehow never gotten around to reading it. I knew that it was a mystical tale that could change your life, make you want to puke, or both. But as I was reading it, I felt that I had found the perfect book for those who love books and travel. As the main character noted, “[s]ometimes it’s better to be with the sheep, who don’t say anything. And better still to be alone with one’s books. They tell their incredible stories at the time when you want to hear them.”

And then there is one of the book’s most quoted lines, in this exchange between the old man and the boy: “[Old man]: ‘There is one great truth on this planet: whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It’s your mission on earth.’ [Boy]: ‘Even when all you want to do is travel?…’ [Old man]: ‘Yes…when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.'”

Lovely, and true.

1 Comment

  1. Paul
    June 5, 2012

    Yes! Gotta love the feel, smell, and handle of a real book. I love ‘The Alchemist’ and ‘Born to Run’ – wearing the Five Fingers and making Chia Fresca! Interesting tidbit about ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. A few other great books are:

    ‘The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari’ by Robin Sharma
    ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Viktor Frankle
    ‘The fifth sacred thing’ by Starhawk
    ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
    ‘Conversations with God’ by Neale Walsch
    ‘Mindset’ by Carol Dweck
    ‘Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard’ by Chip Heath
    ‘The Last Word on Power’ by Tracy Goss

    Very short list of my favorite books on self discovery and creating change in one’s life and within a community.

    On a side note, I’ve watched a lot of Michael Sandel’s Harvard lectures (available on Youtube or his website) about ethics, morals, and justice. I have his book ‘Justice : What’s the Right Thing To Do?’ on my list as his lectures are excellent.

    Have you read any of Paulo Coehlo’s other books? I heard they’re also very good.


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