An ode to the travelling book

5 Aug

Any book lover who also has itchy feet will tell you of at least one really great book they picked up in a backpacker hostel. Perhaps you have one of these stories: a mangy, dog-eared rag of a thing, it might have been the only English-language paperback you could get in exchange for your poorly chosen airport novel or half-finished 1000-page classic. It had a list of names or countries in the front – a record of a novel better travelled than you are. You’d vaguely heard of the author before, but not the title. You read it on an overnight bus that had the lights on for 9 hours and all the windows jammed open, leaving the passengers frozen and delirious by morning. And in that deeply profound way that only comes of accidental reads, it changed your life.

I had one of these. It was Atlas Shrugged, and the deep sense of unease it gave me set me off on a new pattern of politicisation that would have made Ayn Rand turn in her grave (although I’m not sure how much more uncomfortable she could get, burning in hell). I stole my disgusting copy from a hostel in Varanassi, India, in a minor act of vengeance against a manager who overcharged me. Later, reading it on a train in Delhi, it got me into a great conversation with a young Kashmiri woman who had read it four times and was angry about things I didn’t even understand.

Book exchanges in hostels are a connection to your fellow travellers, a connection to the countries they’ve been to, and a ramshackle, global library reliant on serendipity and other people’s unreliable taste.

But they are dying out.

This trip, I’ve noticed just how many e-readers are out there. On planes, buses, trains – my fellow gringo backpackers are more likely to be reading from a kindle than a diseased-looking penguin classic. Along with every other institution connected to the printed book, hostel book exchanges are disappearing, and with them, the travelling book.

This is a moment that shouldn’t pass without some recognition, a moment of mourning. Here in my hostel tonight I’ll take off my figurative cap, bow my head and spare a quiet minute’s silence, to ponder all those great books, read, swapped and re-read.

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2 Responses to “An ode to the travelling book”

  1. chefgusto August 5, 2013 at 12:06 pm #

    I’d pick a hard copy rather than an e-book any time.

    • heathesaurus August 5, 2013 at 12:48 pm #

      Me too… Hopefully we keep leaving them behind as well!

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