Whenever I know that I will be traveling, especially when I am traveling abroad, I spend more time deciding on which books to pack than I do on clothes. Deciding on the right book to bring on a trip is a lot like choosing which music one will listen to when traveling. Like music, books set the tone of the trip from the beginning, from before the beginning really. Moreover, the right book goes a long way in deciding how the memories of that trip will be determined. If the plane ride is long (five or more hours) then the traveler wants to make sure that he will have a book that can be read for the duration. Likewise, once the traveler has arrived at the destination, that book should lend itself to the personality of the place. For example, I would never choose a Zane Grey novel to bring with me to, say, Vienna. The two are contradictory. This is not to say that one should choose a book that takes place in the city or country one is traveling to either. Although that may be helpful and appropriate, it is not imperative. Again, what is important is that the traveler be able to place himself in the right state of mind through the reading of a certain book. I almost never consult guidebooks other than to use them for their maps of the perspective cities.
When I traveled to North Africa in 2001 I took Paul Bowles with me. Bowles was the obvious choice, at least it seemed at the time. However, what I discovered after a few days was that Bowles was having too great an influence on how I interpreted the landscape and my place in that landscape. I became paranoid and suspicious. In Prague I read Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery and traced some of the streets where Simonini walked. When I traveled to Budapest I brought Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which turned out to be a perfect choice. Mann’s German sensibilities lent themselves rather well to the streets of Budapest that I found myself walking through on most days. I brought a Cormac McCarthy to Austin, a Hemingway to Florida, and John Gardner to western New York. Most recently I took a copy of Roman Tales by Stendhal with me to Milan. It isn’t so much the story I am after, as the tone of a particular writer at a particular time. Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma may have been a better choice, but I knew that this trip would be hectic and I needed something that would not demand as much attention as Charterhouse would have.
On airplanes I tend to read shorter books that are plot heavy as I find it hard to concentrate during cross Atlantic trips. Since I’ve never been able to sleep on planes, I find that books where I can read a few pages at a time, look up, and then go on with my reading for a few more pages are best. On trains I am able to submerge myself into longer books with more complicated plot structures. It’s the same on buses. The only danger is that if one gets too caught up in the reading one is in danger of missing one’s stop. This has happened to me on more than one occasion. In café’s I always try to read something that does not demand too much attention, as I am a great people watcher. The secret is to look absorbed in the book so as to negate anything that might give you away as an observer. Once people become aware that you are watching them they begin to guard themselves, thus showing a less authentic side. After all, if you are not in search of the authentic but are instead after the convenient and what’s safe you can always go to a place like Epcot. God forbid!
When traveling alone, as I often do, a book can be the best companion for the trip. The conversation is entirely up to you and you can start and stop reading at any time. The book becomes a kind of security blanket. Books are absolutely indispensable when asking for a table for one, or bellying up to a bar. Books are also the perfect companions to combat the loneliness of a thousand anonymous hotel rooms late at night.