Books to travel with

A little light reading material

A little light reading material

So, this blog has been dormant for a little while, and I’m sorry about that. But there’s a good reason (or two). Firstly, the world cup has been on, so I’ve been spending a lot of time watching football and not a lot reading. And even less writing. Secondly, I’ve been on holiday.

 For three weeks over May and June, I was travelling in the Rockies and British Columbia, Canada, with a few days in Seattle tagged onto the end. I wanted to get away from the city and be in big, open spaces with lots of beautiful scenery. I was visiting friends for the first week, but for the rest of the time I was going to be on my own. This was fine by me; I needed the peace and quiet.

 Solitude is good. Everybody needs it once in a while. And in today’s society, full of deadlines and requests and instant messages in a thousand different forms, that can easily be forgotten. We are connected to the world in so many different ways for so much of the time we spend awake that our first feeling at not having phone reception or Internet access is often one of panic, at least internally.

 But the flip side of being used to having constant access to the world is that the world also has constant access to you. And every now and then, that’s something we all need to get away from. So I did. I had my phone with me while I was travelling, and still connected with the world occasionally, but I was also determined to make the most of having time to myself in my peaceful surroundings.

 Travelling by yourself can be a wonderful thing. Whether it’s a few weeks exploring a new part of the world, a day trip out of town or an eight-hour journey across the country to visit an old friend, at no other time is your mind most free to loosen up and wander, leaving behind it the constant bustle of day-to-day life. An extended period of travelling can be like one long meditation, allowing you to take in new ideas, process old ones and discard the mental baggage you’ve suddenly realised you don’t need anymore.

 However, this isn’t something you can go into completely unprepared. You need the right tools. As good for the soul as solitude can be, it can still get lonely. And sometimes you’ll need a kick-start for your meditation, a prompter to take you into another world. Sometimes, you’ll need a book.

All you need now is a good book

All you need now is a good book

Weeks before I jetted off to Canada, I was planning what reading material I was going to take. I try not to indulge my habit too much, but despite my best efforts there are always a good number of enticingly unread books on my shelves, just crying out to opened and explored. I needed variety – too much of the same genre or writing style might wear after a while. I also needed a mixture of easy-going entertainment and things that would get my brain ticking, to allow the perfect balance of relaxation and rumination.

 I was going for three weeks, so I selected three books: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and the brilliantly titled How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life by enigmatic guitar legend John Fahey. Each a different type of story and all by authors new to me (even if I was familiar with Fahey’s music) – this promised to be a holiday of exploration on many different levels.

 In its own way, each book turned out to be perfect. I began with The Night Circus, as fantasy has always been my go-to genre when I’m looking to escape the real world. I’ve always had vivid imagination, and these kinds of tales always take me back to my childhood state of believing anything was possible. In that respect, Morgenstern’s first novel is a masterpiece: a tale of two sorcerers’ apprentices whose whole lives have been twisted into an elaborate game as a bet between their respective masters. As the main characters trump each other with a series of fantastical feats, each more breath-taking than the last, it becomes clear that the author also has a lot to say on the influence of parents and teachers, and the importance of making our own way in the world.

 I read The Night Circus throughout my week among the shimmering lakes and jaw-dropping peaks of the Rockies, and finally finished it on the overnight train from Jasper to Vancouver. Returning to the big-city atmosphere, I now felt peaceful and, at least to some extent, ready again for a more bustling sensory experience. I didn’t stay long, but over the next two days I found myself always heading away from the busy main streets to seek out the magic in the corners of the city.

 Despite the throngs of visitors from far and wide, Granville Island’s esoteric market hall seemed to me to have been touched with a sprinkling of the Circus’ fairy dust. A mecca of exotic teas, fragrant cheeses and sparkling local artwork reached by a tiny ferry from the mainland, it reminded me very much of the book’s distinctive black-and white tents, a new wonder around every corner.

 A stone’s throw away, I found a street musician playing an otherworldly instrument: a single stick that appeared to contain a whole universe of sounds. I bought his CD, and saw him the next night in concert with two of his fellow mages. On my final morning, I also managed to stumble into the thousand-acre-wood of Stanley Park, a gigantic patch of temperate rainforest bordering the Vancouver seawall. Looking back, it’s clear to see how my first holiday book had affected my mind-set.

 I began reading my second book on the ferry to the wilderness of Vancouver Island. Having now been away from my normal life for over a week, this turned out to be the perfect time to dive into A Visit from the Goon Squad, an exploration of the relationships and private thoughts of an intertwined group of friends and acquaintances based loosely in New York. I’ve always had the impression that life in New York can be similar to that in Berlin, and there were certainly echoes of my own experiences here. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character at a different point in the group’s timeline, an ingenious literary device that allows the reader to gradually fill the gaps in each protagonist’s narrative and thus gain a much greater perspective on both the events in the book and the way their own lives fit into a larger whole.

 This is where I read Jennifer Egan's "A Visit fromthe Goon Squad"

This is where I read Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit fromthe Goon Squad”

Reclining on the sunny shores of Tofino and admiring the wind-whipped rocks of Ucluelet’s wild Pacific coast, I was reminded by this book of all the good people I have met, both in Berlin and elsewhere, and came to appreciate the effects we have all had on each other’s lives. I often think about how much we each approach life as the star of our own play, and it helps every now and then to remember that everyone else’s life is just as colourful and important as your own.

 Finally, as I headed to Victoria for my last couple of days on Vancouver Island, I cracked open How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life. A more difficult read, it perhaps didn’t fit my current mind-set quite as perfectly as the other two books, but at least I came to it at a point when I was more ready for a challenge after two relatively easy starters.

 Part biography, part short story collection, this is a bizarre blend of fiction and fantasy that allows the reader some insights into the mind and life of one of the most unique musicians of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is fitting that the facts of this book should be so hard to separate from the fiction, given the way Fahey’s music defied genres (he saw himself as a blues musician, but was often asked to perform at folk festivals and was also heavily influenced by classical music). It is in parts shocking, confusing and downright hallucinogenic, and reads like the kind of tales you might hear from a mad old uncle when he’s had one snifter too many of his finest brandy.

 Despite being difficult for me to wrap my head around, How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life suited the latter stages of my trip in two ways. Firstly, I found Victoria an odd place: heavily touristy and with a big-city attitude, yet still with a twinge of olde-worlde feel to it and a downtown you can walk across in 15 minutes. Fahey’s ramblings reveal a similar flaw: here was a man obsessed with weaving his own myth, even if only to confuse others for his own amusement. Each was a riddle to me, in its own way.

 Secondly, the musical themes of Fahey’s book linked in nicely with my final destination, the unexpected gem of Seattle. I had tagged this corner of the U.S. onto the end of my trip primarily because of its links with cult 90s drama Twin Peaks, and I was hoping to get a look at the stunning Pacific Northwest scenery that featured so heavily in the series. However, it was another aspect of the city’s cultural history that really endeared it to me.

 Unbeknownst to many, or at least to me before I headed out there, Seattle was the birthplace of one James Marshall Hendrix – Jimi to his friends. All things considered, not that big a deal is made of this fact; there’s an unfinished park with his name and an exhibit at the excellent EMP Sci-Fi + Pop Culture Museum, but that’s about it. However, his influence can still be felt in the city’s bustling live music scene.

Jimi Hendrix exhibition at the EMP museum in Seattle

Jimi Hendrix exhibition at the EMP museum in Seattle

Having met a couple of fellow blues enthusiasts at my hostel, we had been wandering the streets for some time looking for live music and somewhere to eat, before eventually giving in to our hunger and simply settling for the next sports bar. We could find music afterwards, we reasoned. But as it turned out, we didn’t have to – the music came to us. After about an hour in this unassuming establishment, we were surprised to see the raised platform next to us turned into a proper stage and graced by a highly accomplished blues-rock trio. About four songs into the set, they rolled into one of the best versions of “Little Wing” I’ve ever heard, thus exemplifying far better than any museum could what Hendrix and live music means to the city. The fact that this performance was outdone again maybe an hour later by a few of the regulars having their “standard” Tuesday night jam session just proved the point even further.

 As I edged towards the end of my final book, I realised that, despite my initial misgivings, I had in fact once again stumbled upon the perfect reading material at the perfect point of my trip. In a city where Hendrix, Nirvana, Queensrÿche, Soundgarden and many more cut their teeth, I was finally beginning to understand John Fahey’s own story of how he discovered the music he gave to millions. It was the least accessible volume I had taken with me and, in retrospect, not the best choice, but it found its place in the end. This made it all the more rewarding: a satisfying conclusion to three weeks of exploration, both inside and out.

 What are your favourite holiday reads? Would you recommend any particular book for a specific destination? Please leave a comment below!

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2 Responses to Books to travel with

  1. rheahboyden says:

    I really enjoyed this Ian! What a great idea to choose three books for your three weeks. It is nice to read at leisure on a trip and savour the reading and connect it to what you are experiencing. I recently read ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed which was a marvelous adventure along the Pacific Crest Trail. I also love to dip into my ‘Diary of Anais Nin’ when I am travelling. It is so rich and thought-provoking. 🙂

  2. kolyma42 says:

    Thanks Rhea! Having a standard/fallback seems like a good idea – it’s nice to have something familiar when you’re far from home. My choices were a bit riskier in that sense, but I think they paid off! 🙂

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