We usually have way too many. Big menus are supposed to make a restaurant seem significant, while in fact it feels overwhelming, and we know no one chef can cook that many things for a room full of people at any given time. And how can all the ingredients be fresh? The same with supermarkets– so many choices, and, in fact, most of it is not good or good for us. The same principle can be applied to many things. So many choices, and so little guidance in how to choose. Well, no, that is wrong. There is just too much guidance and no way to sort that out either.
One thing you don’t want to do when you travel is carry a lot of books. So this is solved the the electronic “reader”, but then you have the preponderance of choices, and, to my mind, a very mediocre medium. I finally have a lot of time to read, but I only brought a couple of books with me on my travels. Those are finished.
But the solution is really quite easy if you are traveling in hostels. Almost all I have been in have a library/book exchange. And it turns out these mostly young travelers carry some heavy reading with them. At this point I am hoping against electronic readers, because you don’t leave that behind or exchange it for something you haven’t yet read.
The library at the last hostel I stayed in had a small but select bunch of books. I looked at the titles and wondered about the people who had left them. I looked around. Most of the occupants were in their 20’s, yet here was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale alongside Roverto Bolano’s By Night in Chile. There was little of little consequence. I traded in my finished Islands Beneath the Sea, Isabel Allende, and will leave Bolano at the next stop. The flow of books through hostels keeps such literature alive on the road, like an underground railroad of reading.
This links back to choice by the fact that in hostels there is generally little-30 to 50 or so books in several different languages. If you hunger to read, eat what you are given. Choose from the small selection, and be grateful for the quality of reader who preceded you along the road. I find myself overwhelmed by bookstores, as much as I love them, unless I have gone there with a list.
To carry the food metaphor a bit further, we often eat the same sort of stuff out of habit or acquired taste. Given the huge menu, we will gravitate to that which we know. Given a few choice options, we may have to wander into new territory. From the shelf in my current hostel I have chosen Lawrence Durrell’s Balthazar. Written in 1958. Yellowed pages with the aroma of air and time. It is part of a 4 book series. 3 of the 4 are here. I’m trying to figure out how to get my eyes on the 4th.
Reading this book is like discovering artichokes for the first time. A level of resistance has to be surmounted. Layers must be peeled. And digestion is challenged. The book is old. It must be quaint. Who heard of the author? The first few pages drown me in a sea of unfamiliar and poetic language and usage:
I had to set myself the task of trying to recover them [the characters] in words, reinstate them in memory, allot to each his and her position in my time. Selfishly. And with that writing complete, I felt I had turned a key upon the doll’s house of our actions. Indeed, I saw my lovers and friends no longer as living people but as coloured transfers of the mind; inhabiting my papers now, no longer the city, like tapestry figures. It was difficult to concede to them any more common reality than to the words I had used about them. What has recalled me to myself?
It turns out that this is a book not just about a group of people in Alexandria, Egypt, at a particular point in time, but it is also a book about writing, and epistemology:
“We live” writes Pursewarden somewhere, “lives based upon selected fictions. Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in space and time–not by our personalities as we like to think. Thus every interpretation of reality is based upon a unique position. Two paces east or west and the whole picture is changed.” Something of this order. . . .
And as for human characters, whether real or invented, there are no such animals. Each psyche is really an anthill of opposing predispositions. Personality as something with fixed attributes is an illusion–but a necessary illusion if we are to love!
Built on allusions, assumptions and asides, the book proceeds to tell the tales of the author, a group of characters of suspect desires and proclivities, and the instability of it all. Also it is set in an Alexandria that will never exist again, and only even then existed in the imaginings of its disparate residents.
I am not far into the book, and I only have a few days to read it and perhaps one more. I hate to break up the set, but I may have to take one of them with me on the road. The reading of them will etch my experience of the parts of Colombia I am traveling through at the time, warping the people I meet with the weight of the characters in the books. And vice versa. It will be my Colombia colored by my experiences and my state of mind as I travel, and that shaped in part by what I am reading.
What a gift of chance and limited choices! The author has other works, but what are the odds of me finding them? I’ll find new readings along the way, and my psyche will acquire some more oppositional predispositions.