Good old fashioned pages, ink, occasionally awkward cover designs, musty smell. Many of us love them, especially when paired with a hot beverage and damp weather. But forget the bookshelf you’ve carefully pruned for order, ease of access, and (admit it) to impress visitors with your intellect and taste- you’re about to go on the road, traveling light. No room for hefty volumes in that backpack.
Possibly, technology will come to your rescue; maybe you have an electronic reading device, and you don’t anticipate venturing to places where you are likely to be relieved of your valuables. If, on the other hand, you foresee long, arduous bus rides, waiting in lines at border crossings, water damage, or potential robbery, you need a new plan. You need bookshares.? Bookshares are incredibly common in hostels and low-budget accommodations around the world. Often they are comprised of a book-filled shelf, box, or corner in the main common area, and though the rules vary from each establishment to the next, the concept is always the same: take book. Read book. Either a) return book or b) leave a book in exchange.
Simple, beautiful, 48- litre backpack friendly.
True, your selection may be limited in some ways- for instance, depending on where you are in the world, the pickings for LGBTQ-themed writing may be slim, and you won’t find many copies of Bell Hooks on Honduran party islands. If you go the bookshare route, you will likely end up reading some truly terrible books, the kind that are so poorly written or unoriginal that you can’t believe someone agreed to publish them. But, the longer you travel, the better you’ll become at selecting readable works, and you will stumble onto some remarkable ones that you otherwise might never have picked up.
For example, on a recent six-month shoestring tour of Central America, I read over thirty books, most of which were gleaned from hostel bookshares. I read nonfiction accounts of India under British rule, science and nature writing essays, classic children’s tales, fantasy, westerns, and poetry. I read things by authors I’d never heard of, such as Nayantara Sahgal, Susan Powers, and Tea Obreht, as well as old favorites; Harper Lee, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Terry Pratchett.
I also read Wuthering heights.
Don’t ask me why, but nearly every bookshare I encountered had at least one copy of Wuthering Heights, often with the bonus of highlighted passages and “insightful” margin notes. Presumably this is some unwritten law of the universe, along the lines of mysteriously disappearing ballpoint pens and the near-guarantee that your most embarrassing childhood photos will be presented to whoever you are trying to sleep with by members of your immediate family.
The books I read became more than a pastime or escape from the vigor and strangeness of my travels; they were an intricate part of the journey. I kept a list of which books I read and who authored them, and when I look back over the list I can recall, for the most part, where I found each book, where I left it, and what happened in the time it took me to read it. For me, my experience of the surf town in El Salvador will always include a graphic scalping seen in Larry McMurtry’s The Streets of Laredo (for better or worse). Time spent shuttling back and forth to scuba dive locations in Honduras was accompanied by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Tuck Everlasting and Watership Down were late-night treasures in a Guatemalan lakeside village where the nearest bodega or computer was a thirty-minute uphill trek.
If you have plans to travel but are worried about getting your literature fix, my advice is this: when you leave home, take only one book, one you won’t mind parting with. This will be your springboard, and from it you will discover a literal world of books, full of the words other people have loved enough to carry with them. I only ask that, when choosing that one book, please make sure it isn’t Wuthering Heights.
Theodosia Henney is the author of The Trouble With Paradise in the Winter 2013 issue of Contrary.