One and a half winters ago, on a cold day in Calgary, I found a treasure trove of books by the side of the road.
I walked home, through ice and snow and wind, with three little gems by William Somerset Maugham. (There would have been one more, but I had just read the fabulous Ashenden spy stories, so I left them for another book lover.)
“These books will serve me well on the long train journey through Canada,” I thought, not anticipating that I would share the train with people full of stories themselves, so that I would be writing more than I would be reading.
Not always being well understood by contemporaries, as hard as I try to explain myself in these pages, it is a delight to read stories, first published in 1951, in which I sometimes find myself mirrored with an eerie degree of accuracy.
In The Book-Bag, Maugham writes about the burden of travel as a book-lover.
And like the dope-fiend who cannot move from place to place without taking with him a plentiful supply of his deadly balm I never venture far without a sufficiency of reading matter. Books are so necessary to me that when in a railway train I have become aware that fellow-travellers have come away without a single one I have been seized with a veritable dismay. But when I am starting on a long journey the problem is formidable.
Formidable and heavy, I should add, not having any porters at my service. People who generously receive me on my travels often wonder about the weight of my backpack, which, if not put down carefully, puts an ever-lasting marker of my visit into the wooden floor. Once I empty the contents onto the table or the nightstand, they are torn between understanding the reason behind the brick-like weight and not understanding in the least why anyone would carry around a library.
I dare say, with more dismay than pride, that I have more books in my backpack right now than some people have in their house.
A number of well-meaning readers have suggested to me the purchase of one of those reading-machines that seem to be available in the sort of shop that sells this sort of thing. Apparently, you can return to the shop and ask for more books to be put on the machine, to be perused at a later time. “Unlimited books,” these friends say, which I think merely suggest their limited imagination of unlimitedness.
When I set out on a journey, I spend 15 minutes on packing clothes, toothbrush, shaving equipment and maybe some anti-malarial drugs. Then, I pace my room for hours, going through bookshelves and book piles and book boxes, trying to decide what reading material to take. Obviously, when I have books about the country for which I set out, these books shall come along for the walk. But anything else is difficult, for I don’t know in what mood I will be, how long the journey will take, and which books might be banned in what country. (A subject sorely lacking from the Foreign Office’s travel advisory, by the way.) My biggest fear before every trip is that I will run out of things to read. This once happened, on an island off Estonia, and it is what got me started with writing. So there you go, dear reader, you could have been spared all of this, if only I had packed Kalevipoeg.
Weight and size are an issue, too, because I don’t believe in the unlimitedness of my backpack. Hence my preference for paperbacks or books with thin pages and small print. Lastly, I prefer to take books that I don’t plan to keep, so I can leave them, after having finished them, of course, on the train, a park bench or with one of those little libraries whence I picked up Mr Maugham’s works.
If I manage to stay clear of book markets, my backpack gets lighter the longer I travel. Once it’s getting close to empty, it’s a sign to return home. This is actually how I measure time, by books remaining, not by days or weeks.
But I didn’t really want to write about books that much. I wanted to tell you about Mayhew, Maugham’s story about a lawyer, 35 years old, who, if not at the height, then on the ascending slope of his career, decided to call it quits.
He thought he could do more with life than spend it on composing the trivial quarrels of unimportant people. He had no definite plan. He merely wanted to get away from a life that had given him all it had to offer.
I did the same, at the same age, from the same profession, for similar reasons. And I definitely had no definite plan. Heck, even ten years later I don’t have one.
Mayhew was quicker:
Presently he made up his mind to write a history.
Have I not taken up studies in history, too?
For fourteen years he toiled unremittingly. He made thousands and thousands of notes. […] He had his subject at his finger ends, and at last was ready to begin. He sat down to write. He died.
Well, I shan’t be surprised if that is the fate awaiting me. I still have a few years, then, but the notes are already piling up.
- More about books, including my wishlist.
- Having left the parasitic profession of benefiting from the problems of others, I now rely on the generosity of patrons who agree with me that the world needs more beautiful writing, rather than writing for winning. After all, one man’s victory is always another man’s defeat.