Where I Read

I’ve heard of armchair travelers but on my real travels through India I rarely find myself reading in so homely or anchored a spot. Gone are the days of hot chocolate, pajamas and a comfy couch – these days I’ll be found reading Rushdie on a bustling railway platform or dipping into Dalrymple on a rickety ten-hour bus-ride where the driver speeds so dangerously I wonder if I’ll live to the end of the last chapter.

I love that a single novel can travel many miles with me before I reach its final pages, that I’ve begun a book on some sunny beach in Karnataka and ended it in the bitter reaches of the India Pakistan border. I love that I carried a copy of The History of Walking while I was actually walking through southern India and was able to pass it on to a guy we met on Om Beach who was writing a book about his walk from Canada to Mexico – the serendipity of it all!

This year is as much about where I read as what I’ve been reading so I sat down this morning and wrote the first of, I hope, many and far-flung accounts of Where I Read. If you’re reading from an armchair at home then I hope you enjoy traveling along with me. And if you’re reading in any weird and wonderful places yourself do let me know, I’d love to hear about it!

The stories; the places:

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Crime and Punishment on an Indian Sleeper Train

Plodding swiftly through the dry Deccan plateau – yes, plodding swiftly: my train speeds toward Amritsar a thousand miles north but it plods and lumbers, or so it seems to me – the parched, cracked navel of India makes everything seems so slow, thirsty, interminable. At first I am encouraged by brief glimpses of pink petals on some thorny tree but eventually I seek out another landscape inside my book.

Not that Dostoyevsky’s Russia is so very different from India: I have witnessed streets and rooms like those of Raskolnikov’s St. Petersburg – the scaffolding, the bricks, the dust, the unbearable stench, the rags, the multitudes…

I am a third of the way through. A drunk man has been trampled by a horse, two old women murdered with an axe, an orphaned boy cries “Run like billy-o” and Raskolnikov says: “That’s enough. Begone mirages, begone affected terrors, begone apparitions! There’s a life to be lived.” I read until day becomes dusk and Porfiry Petrovich says with a giggle tee-hee: “My dear fellow! Why it’s from you, from you yourself that I’ve learned it all.”

I lay my book down and withdraw from this fabricated world for the final moments of the real one as the sun slips behind a dry horizon and a farmer whips his goatherd homewards…

“Chai! Chai! Chai! Masala tea, chai!” The raspy cry of a chai-wallah roaming the aisles with his canteen and paper cups rouses me at dawn. In the night, the train rocked me back and forth and broke my rest as it hurtled through the northern plains. I wake up in a new world, a different India of misty fields of mustard seed and people cowering in the cold. There are goats on the tracks and human shit. Seven scraggy children jump up and down on a cold tin roof while pigs snuffle and root in mountains of waste that are the gardens of the places where people live. They are not waiting for a train. They are not going anywhere.

In the toilets, I squat to pee and stare bleary-eyed through the hole at the tracks below. The India-Pakistan border is yet a day away. How much of it can I bear to spend staring into the mire of this poor humanity? I escape to the pages of my book to find it is no better in there. Nikolai is down on his knees confessing to a crime he did not commit and sweet Sonya, poverty’s whore, is telling Raskolnikov: “You must accept suffering and redeem yourself by it.”

And though she may be right for he has surely sinned, I find myself unconvinced and seething at religion and history and cultural legacy and all those myths that tell us we must accept suffering, that we are redeemed by it, that it is the will of a divinity whose mysteries we are too base and ignorant to understand. And these myths, these holy lies, they keep us dumb and compliant and they are the reason, the true reason, for these tent towns by the railways lines. Dostoyevsky knew it in 1865 when he wrote the devastating Crime and Punishment and I see it still today, I see it from my window on a sleeper train in India.

And I cannot escape the fact that I am on one side of the window and they are on the other; that they are going nowhere while I travel anywhere I please; that I’m not only traveling in this world but have the pleasure and privilege to break free from it and lie low inside the pages of another. And though I have committed no crime, I understand, like Nikolai, that in some strange and convoluted way I am part of it all and the sin is also mine…

Literary Journey.

Hypothesis

Travel around the world via a bookshelf.

Apparatus

You will need a bookshelf containing books, as well as a pen and paper to keep track of your journey.

Method(s)

Choose a book from the bookshelf and commence reading. Continue reading until a foreign country is mentioned in the text. Then choose a second book that’s somehow related to that country and begin reading again. Repeat until you have either returned to your point of origin or have completed one circumnavigation of the globe (or a dead-end).

An alternative, and perhaps more conventional, approach to this experiment is to read each book from cover to cover. To create an itinerary, simply choose your destination – the Middle East for example – and start tripping around the region via its literature.

For serious literary frequent-flyer miles, start with an author from your country, then read a book by someone from a neighbouring country and continue until you make your way around the globe. Note: this long-distance read will require around 196 books.

 

*from Experiment 24 in The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel.  

Sometimes a Great Notion.

When I first moved to Oregon, I asked around about local literature and everyone’s first response was invariably Geek Love. If a novel has any relation to the place where it comes from, Katherine Dunn’s story of a family of circus freaks is pure Portland. Bizarre, irreverent and bewitching, Geek Love keeps it weird.

But Portland doesn’t define Oregon. There’s impenetrable forest, ravenous rivers and mighty mountain beyond the strange city limits and it stretches all the way to the wild Pacific Ocean.

Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range… come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River…

The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, sheering, cutting… forming branches. Then, through bearberry and salmonberry, blueberry and blackberry, the branches crashing into creeks, into streams. Finally, in the foothills, through tamarack and sugar pine, shittin bark and silver spruce – the the green and blue mosaic of Douglas fir – the actual river falls five hundred feet… and look: opens out upon the fields.

The opening lines of Sometimes a Great Notion pulled me into its pages like ivy curling round a tree stump. Ken Kesey’s words – his story and his characters – wrapped around and through me, utterly compelling and savage and sorrowful.

Sometimes a Great Notion is about a logging family on the Oregon coast who refuse to heed a union strike against a lumber company and continue cutting down trees, incensing the rest of the town. It’s peculiar to this State but it’s also about America and freedom and a man’s right to do whatever he goddamn pleases. It’s about memory and the interpretation of past events. It’s about festering resentment and loyalty and revenge. It’s about finding some space to be in the world.

It was a long read at over seven hundred pages. Fragmented and meandering, with sudden shifts and slow slides in narrating voices, it wasn’t always easy. Nor was it laborious or wearisome. Rather, I felt like I was on an epic but necessary journey into the heart of a very complex, divisive and painful point in Oregon’s history. It often made me gasp and cry and hang my head and sigh.

I loved it.

If I did such things as top tens then this novel would be towering somewhere in that list.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson.

Truly it was eden. Those end of summer days in a cottage with three friends in furthest Finland. There was no electricity. We lit coloured candles and played cards by flickering light. There was no running water. We filled our buckets by the lake, lit the sauna, took turns in washing each other’s hair. We grilled fish and vegetables on a rack set between red bricks above a floundering fire.

Some of us climbed trees and others climbed hills and wore their silhouettes as ballgowns at sunset. Some of us read and swam and took the boat out on the water. I went slightly loony trying to write a love story and it made perfect sense to me to float away fully clothed until a sentence came my way. I spun myself dry. I felt quite like myself.

It was a summer of idyll and wonder. These sorts of summers cannot be fabricated, though I’m lucky to have known other summers and hope for more to come. Still. You never know what’s coming for you.

If a moment in time cannot be recreated, then a book is often a very good substitute. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson brought me back to Finland and seemed to echo the particular feeling of my time there if not the same story or circumstances: the peaceful passing of hours, so pleasant but shadowed by an internal restlessness; a profound sense of care and companionship struggling to co-exist with the need to be alone sometimes; a simplicity of communication – long periods passed in silence but every conversation filled with insight, import and implication. Except when we were talking nonsense and bickering!

Just like six year old Sophia and her grandmother in this slight but weighty novel. They explore their solitary island hand in hand but another kind of exploration is happening within each of them: exploring the meaning of life, the beauty and baseness of nature, the question of god, the question of what comes after, what happens when you wake up and remember that you’re on an island and you have the whole bed to yourself because your mother is dead?

Somber stuff, and yet not at all. The seasons know nothing of our grief and heartaches; summer speeds and meanders on regardless. It is full of flowering change and rainless stagnation, of storms and the calm before them. In our darkest days, it glistens and shines. Jansson captures this essence of summer in her book, it’s the most beautiful collection of vignettes. Though it evokes a very particular summer for me, it’s the kind of book that will mean so many things to so many people.

These few words between child and grandmama illustrate so perfectly the headspace I was in that August. Sophia finds a grey fisherman’s cat and takes him home but no matter how hard she tries to ingratiate herself, it runs away and refuses to be cared for:

“It’s funny about love,” Sophia said. “The more you love someone, the less he likes you back.”

“That’s very true,” Grandmother observed. “And so what do you do?”

“You go on loving,” said Sophia threateningly. “You love harder and harder.”

Her grandmother sighed and said nothing.

It’s nice to read a book that reminds you of days gone by. It’s even nicer to read a book and know that, in some ways, you’re light years beyond them.

 

Street Books: a bicycle-powered mobile library for people living outside

Walking to work today, I passed a paper memorial on the steps above the Eastbank Esplanade: RIP Coop Dog, it said, You Will Be Missed. It was written with a black felt-tip in bubble writing and taped to the concrete with a piece of electrical tape. Six or seven wilted roses and yellow irises lay around the meager monument along with some small grey rocks and two empty beer cans: Old English 800 and Rolling Rock. The words Christian Cooper May 11th 1973 to July 2011 were printed at the top of the page and a childlike drawing of a man in a baseball cap beneath a tree filled the remainder of the white space.

I don’t know for certain but I’m assuming Christian Cooper was one of the many homeless people in Portland. Living in Chinatown, our loft looks over Transition Projects and every day dozens of men and women queue around our block for food at Blanchet House. It’s impossible not to notice but noticing is different than seeing, and seeing is a long way from understanding let alone caring.

I do care but I don’t know what to do, I don’t know how to help. Thankfully, somebody in Portland is thinking outside the box and in ways that go beyond the issue of core survival needs like food and shelter. When I heard about Street Librarian Laura Moulton and her mobile library, it was one of those of course! concepts that seem so obvious in retrospect but I know I’d never have thought of it. Me! To whom books and reading are so important, so vital, so unthinkable of life without.

I was struck by the makeshift memorial for the same reason I am moved by Street Books: the humanity of it. The universal need to place stones and roses around written words and say You will be missed. The need to read, to escape, to discover, to explore, to feed off of language, to nourish the mind and soul. When I try to contemplate the experience of a homeless person, I never think much beyond base needs and necessities. And yet, why should reading be less of a necessity or a priority for someone who lives out of doors?

I love that the people who frequent Street Books have very distinct and specific tastes and preferences and aren’t afraid to request more of what they’d like. They’re not willing to settle and their librarian is doing her best to get them what they want: Book Requests include Louis L’Amour, Stephen King, Tim O’Brien, Johanna Lindsey, Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, Ojibwa Warrior: Dennis Banks and the Rise of the American Indian Movement, Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Native Son, Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, On the Road and Subterranean Blues, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath and any Philosophy/Psychology books.

Ben borrowed a James Patterson.

This project makes me so happy and inspired to think beyond the obvious and the assumed. Street Books reminds me that each of us has a face, a name and a favourite book. And, hopefully, someone who’ll think of us when we’re here and miss us when we’re gone.