Part IV: On Books and Traveling,
Why I Was So Disappointed to find The Red Wheelbarrow out of Business.
Five years ago, I led my daughters on a similar trek, eventually finding a wonderfully crowded bookstore that made me wish for unlimited time and money. That time I settled on a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Movable Feast, a book I owned already and had read several times, but a book that needed to be read on a sidewalk in Paris.
Whenever I travel I always carry a book, usually five or six, depending on the length of my stay, sometimes more, depending on how variable my whims happen to be when I’m packing. I had started this three month trip with nine or ten, including a couple of British novels that I planned to teach and hadn’t scanned into PDFs, and several American novels that I planned to teach in the spring, once I returned to Arkansas. Along the way I had accumulated another fifteen or so books, of varying sizes, mostly picked up in small used bookshops that seem to occur every couple of blocks as I walked London streets.
These little bookstores were incredible, often times heavily themed, and almost always holding a precious gem. One block over from our flat there was a Marxist bookstore that focused on the plight of the downtrodden. The shop was divided into sections by continents and then subdivided by country—the section on the U.S. was particularly disturbing; it’s never easy to look at your own country through someone else’s eyes (which occurred frequently in London, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France). I stopped one day to browse the one pound table on the sidewalk and found Gunslinger, a book length, six part, surreal, metaphysical poem by Ed Dorn, published in the late 60s in the height of Postmodern extravagance. Wikipedia sums it up by calling it “a long form political poem about a demigod cowboy, a saloon madam, and a talking horse named Claude Levi-Strauss, who travel the Southwest in search of Howard Hughes.” I hadn’t read it before, but I had heard a senior English major read a capstone project paper on it, and knew that at 1 pound, the book was too rare and too beautiful to pass up.
At a stall in Bath, England, I found a paperback copy of Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, a collection of essays and journalistic pieces written in the mid-60s about California culture. Joan Didion, if you don’t know, was one of the early New Journalists, the queen of the form I try to practice on this blog. At 2 pounds another essential find. I spent the train ride from Bath home to London reading her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” where she reflects that “Keepers of private noteooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” Nor is the “point of keeping a notebook . . . to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess.” Rather, for Didion, and for most of us who fancy ourselves writers (though she is the real thing) a notebook is about “How it felt to me.” She goes on to write that “no matter how dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I’.”
Many of the bookstores I shopped raised funds for charitable organizations. In Stratford-Upon-Avon I didn’t buy any Shakespeare from any number of shops selling him, but I did browse the table outside a charity for the local Humane Society, There I found a little Dr. Who paperback from the 80s, part of a series, that I bought for my daughter, who is crazy about Dr. Who. This particular title is called Dr. Who and the Cybermen. After I found the first one on the table outside, I went in and scoured the shelves for other books in the series, nearly missing the scheduled tour of William Shakespeares’ childhood home. I found several books in Oxfam shops. Oxfam is a group of 17 organizations working together to find solutions to poverty, hunger, and social injustice. It was there I happened upon the gem of my trip in London, Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island.
Bill Bryson is an American who lived in England for many years working as a journalist. He had gone abroad as a college student and fell in love with Britain, and after graduation he went back, fell in love with an English girl, and stayed on for years writing for various papers. I had come across Bryson’s later book first, A Walk in the Woods, where he chronicles his attempts to hike the Appalachian Trail, with plenty of self-deprecating humor, along with accurate and unflattering reflections on the U.S. as seen by a repatriated citizen. He made a name for himself in England when he published Notes from a Small Island. It chronicled a final walk-about across England in 1995, just before he and his English family were preparing to return to the states. It sparked an accompanying television series and in 2003 was named the book that most accurately captures the British identity at the end of the 20th Century. It was the book that I read when I wasn’t studying for classes, and it opened my eyes to the country I was living in. It helped me understand the tubes, tea, shops, queues, weather, history, the landscape and almost everything I encountered. Toward the end of my stay in England, my group spent ten days driving into the Lake District, over to York, and then North into Scotland to Edinburgh, and I found myself skipping ahead so I could read Bryson’s reflections on the northern UK. For a few days there, toward the end, it seemed as if Bill and I were traveling mates, seeing the same country together.