The most important part of preparing any trip — be it a weekend at the cottage or a longer stay abroad — is most certainly packing your bags. However, I’ve found that one specific aspect of packing often takes up a lot more of my thoughts and time than it should: deciding what books I’m going to bring along with me. I always take along at least two books, no matter how long the trip, to make sure I have a backup if I finish or get tired of the first one. If travelling involves flying, I find that complicates the decision-making; I always want to bring something really long I’ve been meaning to get to for a while because I tell myself that a flight will give me several solid hours with no interruptions and nothing better to do, although of course I should bring something lighter and really engaging because airplanes are so uncomfortable. I always end up bringing loads of books with me on planes and read only very little — I tend to switch to the little screen rather quickly.
Of course, reading is enjoyable at home, but there’s a very vivid satisfaction in sitting in a park or a café abroad and doing something so usual, so normal. It’s a good way to escape the eery feeling of displacement that travelling gives me, and slip into that very moment, enter the texture of life in the place where I am a stranger. I have very fond memories of visiting a lot of truly fascinating places in Ireland when I went backpacking there for a month in 2008, but I also remember — with equal fondness — reading DeNiro’s Game on a bench in the gardens of Saint-Patrick’s Cathedral, or José Saramago’s The Cave in a hostel common room on a rainy day.
I’ve found it’s really important not to bring something too engrossing to read on a trip, however, or else all I want to do is read and skip all the sightseeing and experiences the place has to offer. On another backpacking trip two years ago, in Turkey and the Balkans, I brought One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Brothers Karamazov, Voyage jusqu’au bout de la nuit, and other stuff I’d wanted to read for a long time. These proved perfect: good to escape elsewhere in long, hot bus rides, but not exactly thrillers. My girlfriend and I learned this truth the hard way when she brought The Shadow of the Wind on the same trip; she mostly wanted to stay by the hotel pool for the (very short) time it took her to read it. I ended up bringing way too many books on that particular trip myself, some of which I didn’t even get around to reading (Le Rouge et le noir, if you really want to know, which still stares at me accusingly from my shelf, as yet unread). All those books did serve a purpose when my backpack was searched in the night train on the border between Bulgaria and Serbia. “Books! Books! BOOKS!” cried the customs officer as she shuffled through my backpack, pulling out volume after volume. She sighed rather desperately and gave up her search. If ever you need to pass anything illegal through Eastern-European borders, now you know how.
I know what you’re thinking: an e-reader would solve that problem, and I could carry an entire library with me in the volume of a single, paperback novella. But the thing is, the love I have for ink and paper books still outweighs the advantages of those clever little machines. I like how I can annotate my books, I like turning the bottom corner of pages I want to read to G., and I like being able to measure how much I have left to read by the space between my thumb and index. I also have a tendency to buy books abroad, where they become mementos of the places I visit. Downloading them abroad just wouldn’t be the same. For example, I cherish my Everyman edition of Ulysses all the more because I bought it in Dublin, from the James Joyce Center. Similarly, I needed to get something — anything — from Shakespeare & Company, in Paris, the first time I went there a few months ago (I finally settled on a book about bookstores, The Yellow-Lighted Bookstore, by Lewis Buzbee, which I felt was appropriate). I didn’t see many decent books in English in the Balkans, although I did find a nice edition of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms in English, with an introduction in Bulgarian, in a street market in Sofia. My foreign book buying activities have gotten a little problematic in the last year, since I’ve been studying abroad in England and, although I brought a decent number of books along with me, I’ve also been buying lots of books here, because I like to surround myself with books — it gives me comfort and makes wherever I live feel like home. The problem is, come June, I need to bring all these books with me back to Montreal.
The core of my library-away-from-home is made up of the books I brought with me (The Measure of Paris, by Stephen Scobie, Possession by A. S. Byatt, and others), then there are books I needed to buy for school (Henry James and Shakespeare figure prominently here), and finally all the books I bought here: The Granta Book of Irish Short Stories, Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, Al Alvarez’s Risky Business, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita bought at Mr B’s Book Emporium, in Bath), Diana Athill’s Instead of a Letter (bought in the London Review bookstore), and (too) many others. Some of these I’ve read, some I haven’t. In my defense, I’ve promised to stop buying books while I’m here — if only because of the logistical problem of bringing them back home with me — at least until I’ve read all of those I have.
Meanwhile, I have another problem; it’s Easter vacation and I’m leaving for a short trip to Italy this week… which books, I wonder, will get the chance to visit Florence with me?