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Posts tagged ‘Travel’

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 3

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The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.” Arthur C. Clarke

Having looked at a few of the classics of ‘travel’ or adventure literature in Part 2, I thought it would be worth considering the outer limits of the genre in this post. After all, it seems logical that after the full extent of physical or spatial travel has been exhausted, humanity and therefore literature should turn towards other less obvious modes of travel. Where to go in fiction when the world is no longer a mystery in reality? This seems a preposterous question to ask in the 21st century, but would probably have been less so in the 19th century, when the possibilities of spatial travel must have excited the imagination in a way that is difficult to comprehend nowadays. In fact, a brief glance at Jules Verne’s bibliography betrays the progressive fetishisation of adventure: we have a simple enough start with Five Weeks in a Balloon and The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, before we move swiftly to the more ambitious Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Mr Verne is quite obviously pushing the boundaries both of physical travel and of our appetite for exploration literature generally, probably to breaking point and beyond.

Even in the 19th century, there must have been a threshold for the public’s endurance of adventure fiction. Once a hero or heroine has gone up and down and sideways as much as is humanly possible, where to next? The answer I think can be found in the clear progression from R.L. Stevenson’s romantic adventure novels of the 1880s (Treasure Island, Kidnapped) to H.G. Wells’ science fiction of the 1890s (The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds). The first of H.G. Wells’ novels listed above represents a particularly interesting spin on the conventional spatio-temporal dimensions of the adventure novel. Indeed, the protagonist of The Time Machine, the Time Traveller, explicitly remains in the same location (a laboratory in Richmond, Surrey) whilst simultaneously embarking on a journey of discovery to the England of the distant future. This is thought provoking for a number of reasons. Firstly, in departing from the confines of spatial exploration, Wells subtly floats the notion that adventure is not merely the preserve of pirates and treasure hunters. In other words, whilst the Time Traveller remains locked in a laboratory, the adventure he undertakes is nevertheless very real.

This seems to be getting at the idea that the scientists of the 19th century were just as ambitious in their quest for discovery as the explorers of the geographic world. Within the context of the adventure story, the idea that a man or woman could emerge from a confined space and claim to have encountered something previously unseen and unheard of must have been nothing short of revolutionary, bordering on the mystical. And yet, that is of course what scientists have always done. In a way, this makes their exploration all the more authentic and noble: scientific explorers cannot always count on the admiration of a timid public when they emerge from their adventures; more often they are greeted with a general lack of understanding and dismissive mockery. This introduces another fascinating element to the classic adventure tale: the idea of the returning traveller shunned for having the temerity to look behind the veil of accepted reality. The Time Traveller cannot be fully understood or believed, which is presumably one of the reasons he chooses to embark on another quest the day after his dinner party, this time never to return. Once again we encounter a hero in the Ulyssian mould, a man driven by a lust for knowledge and adventure, but also perhaps alienated from his peers in mainstream society. It is not hard to imagine, after all, that Ulysses, having returned home to Ithaca after ten years of travel, would have struggled to convince Penelope that he had been kidnapped by a Cyclops.

The frustration of not being fully understood is the universal curse of the keen reader. When a reader emerges from the solitary world of book-reading, there will almost inevitably be a gulf between that reader’s appreciation of reality and everyone else’s. However much a book is dissected, explained and shared with others, the reading of it is inevitably a deeply personal experience. This is, of course, both terrifying and exhilarating: no one can do the reading for you, just as no one can visit Southeast Asia for you, which is why summaries and SparkNotes unfailingly miss the point. And when the heavy-lifting is done, when War and Peace lies conquered on your bedside table, no one is there to congratulate you or admire your newly-found intellectual acumen (or newly-found sense of existential despair). Any sense of triumph is purely your own, like a lone Himalayan climber who, having successfully reached a summit during the day, is forced to dig a one-man shelter in the side of the mountain at night.

The Editors

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 2

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Since writing the first post in this series a few weeks ago, I’ve discovered that the Germans have a word for the inconsolable yearning that seems to be at the root of much of what we do as humans: Sehnsucht. Apparently the notion is now commonly used by psychologists to describe our feelings of inadequacy regarding what we view as incomplete in our lives, as well as our perpetual search for happiness and alternative forms of living. C.S. Lewis became fixated with the idea, which he described as:

“… our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside …

Over a number of years this thought led C.S. Lewis towards his espousal of the Christian faith, which he saw as the only satisfactory counterpoint to the inherent restlessness of the human heart. Similarly, Ulysses’ condemnation in the Inferno is heavily linked to his pursuit of knowledge by purely terrestrial means (i.e. physical as opposed to spiritual travel). For Dante, as for C.S. Lewis, the only way to arrive was to embrace God.

However, turning away from religion, it is clear that a large part of what we derive from books and travel comes from the process itself. In other words, we often undertake both not as necessary steps towards a fixed goal or “arrival”, but as activities we enjoy in and of themselves. This is certainly where Robert Louis Stevenson was coming from when he declared that “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” Indeed, despite his frail health, Stevenson was a man constantly on the move, and his travel writing (notably In the South Seas, 1896) is said to have deeply influenced Joseph Conrad, who also travelled extensively in the south Pacific and used it as the location for much of his own work (see Lord Jim and Victory).

Seaward ho! Hang the treasure! It’s the glory of the sea that has turned my head.”

The idea of travel for its own sake plays a prominent part in Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a novel which dwells on the invariably anticlimactic nature of achieving a specific goal or arriving at a specific place. The treasure itself becomes a corrupting influence, and is depicted as a stale symbol lying in stark opposition to the travel and adventure that precedes its acquisition. Gold requires a sophisticated system of exchange to recognise its value; in other words, it is inherently worthless. And yet, despite the absence of a meaningful objective, the central quest of Treasure Island is portrayed as a welcome antidote to the drab professionalism of nineteenth century Victorian England.

Reading is a similarly exhilarating but anticlimactic process. The realisation towards the end of a good book that there aren’t many pages left can be crushingly disappointing, as though we expected something more to appear miraculously after the final sentences. It is not, howver, a disappointment that stops us picking up more books, from which we must infer that, as with travel and treasure-hunting, reading is a never ending activity the real pleasure of which lies in the doing and not the arriving. As T.S. Eliot said,

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

The Editors

23. Why Read?

I was read to before I learned to love reading. My sister and I would lay attentively, tucked into our twin beds as my father’s slow melodic voice lulled us to slumber. As he sat reading I would fall in and out of new and familiar worlds, and although I can’t remember any of the books he read, I can remember the feeling being read to gave me: it was comforting.

Perhaps being read to made me lazy, I don’t remember reading much as a child. I was further behind in literacy than most of my year. It wasn’t till University, a little after University in fact, that I would find reading a prerequisite for happiness. Suddenly books were something I had to read, rather than an extracurricular activity to take or leave.

There is a magnificent power to literature, both in fiction and non-fiction, that nothing else in life can give you. My family never had the money to travel beyond Cornwall, I don’t have the money to travel beyond Europe. Yet I’ve seen Canada, China and Australia without needing to leave my living room. I’ve travelled through time, into space, through wars and into the minds of others. When fiction is at it’s best I’ve dropped periodically into experiences so vivid I have trouble separating them from my own. Reading is an inexpensive tool to expand the mind, both intellectually and emotionally.

Reading inspires me to act in the world – not just participate. I understand others better, I am more accepting of difference and more aware of social injustice. I fight ignorance with each new book while simultaneously realising how much more I have to learn.

As saccharine as it sounds, reading makes me think anything is possible.

To quote George R. R. Martin’s Jojen Reed:

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

Why read? Why live once when you can live infinitely.

Alice Farrant writes the blog ofBooks.org. Follow her on Twitter: @nomoreparades.

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 1

Dante

in our mad flight we turned our oars to wings

Inferno XXVI

It has been suggested elsewhere on this website, somewhat unoriginally, that every time a reader picks up a book he or she embarks on a journey, often of intellectual discovery, but potentially also of the emotional, imaginative, or even spiritual variety (see Roomful of Mirrors). Indeed, J.M.G. Le Clezio, chief inspirer of this series of posts and author of the original essay “Reading as True Travel”, argues that reading offers a form of departure that extends far beyond the limits of physical travel:

The world’s mystery cannot be found through exploration: mystery resides rather in the world’s imaginable power.”

Certainly, it must be accepted that seeing more of the world will not necessarily open the traveller’s eyes to the infinite subtlety of the human mind (unless perhaps said traveller is the 17th Earl of Oxford on a controversial visit to Verona) and, to this extent, any parallels we may seek to draw between reading and travelling are limited: the results we can hope to achieve from each activity are distinct, albeit potentially overlapping. However, in this piece I would like to focus more on the similarities between what it is that drives us to pick up books, on the one hand, and book plane tickets, on the other.

Apologies for digging up Dante for a second week running, but I find it difficult to attempt to comprehend these underlying urges without referring to the Florentine poet’s conception of man as Ulysses preparing to embark on a final expedition, this time to the “unknown” half of the world that was thought to lie beyond the Pillars of Hercules (dividing Europe and north Africa). Dante sees Ulysses as the ultimate traveller, a hero perpetually and tragically in search of more. More what, exactly? More of everything, but most importantly more knowledge – “all men desire to know” – which is why he is a sort of anti-hero in the Inferno: he embodies both the desire for knowledge (always a delicate area where faith is concerned), and humanity’s inherently unsatisfied and restless nature.

There is no doubting the fact that the search for discovery and the pursuit of knowledge drive, to a large extent, our desire to read as well as our desire to travel. We read books to find out what happened and how things work, to marvel at other people’s imaginative creations, and, above all, to marvel at beauty (see Why Read? No.17). We travel for similar reasons. Moreover, we may return to books and places, but there is nothing quite like the joy of the new, of experiencing the hitherto unexperienced. As such, there is a large element of risk-taking in both reading and travelling – not in terms of physical danger, obviously, but in terms of whether or not we ultimately find what it is we set out to discover. After all, it is one thing to seek the contemplation of beauty, for example, but another altogether to strike gold in a way that is distinctly subjective and personal to us. We may be recommended books to read or places to visit, and yet it is almost impossible to foresee what it is that will move or impress us. It is not uncommon to put down a book or return from a holiday thoroughly uninspired by the preceding ‘journey’. Invariably, however, we trust that there is something out there for us, even if it is hidden away on the other side of the world. Something that would be good to see, something we must see.

Reading and travel are often viewed as activities of leisure, to be taken up in spare time away from the harsh reality of working life. I would suggest, on the contrary, that both are in fact often motivated by an underlying sense of urgency. See, for example, the frequency with which both inspire bucket-list discussions: “100 books/places to read/visit before you die”. That reading and travel might both reflect humanity’s consciousness of mortality is an idea that seems to surface frequently in Julian Barnes’ novel A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, not explicitly perhaps, but it lurks behind some of the more central themes. In particular, the story of Noah’s ark, which Barnes uses as one of many ‘pillars’ around which to base his 10 ½ narratives, connects the idea of salvation through physical travel to that of salvation through literature. That may seem a stretch but bear with me – the story of Noah is intended (in the Bible) both as a literal account of humanity’s survival by taking to the seas, and as an allegory for humanity’s salvation through faith. That faith is accessed and understood, at least doctrinally, via books, and the story of Noah appears in the first book of the Bible, Genesis

Medusa

So should we be more inclined to see readers (ourselves) as intrepid physical and spiritual adventurers rather than as armchair navel gazers? Probably not, but there is undoubtedly a desperate yearning at the root of much of our literary activity, a yearning caught between despair at the inadequacy of what we know is true, and the hope of what might be true in the as yet unexplored landscapes of some distant reality. Barnes once again manages to convey this exquisitely in his assessment of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa – a painting painfully split between an overwhelming sense of foreboding doom and a glimmer of hopeful expectation (see the tiny ship on the horizon). It is easy to imagine that Ulysses experienced something similar as he sailed beyond the boundaries of man’s earthly realm, glimpsing the mountain of Purgatory as he did, before being sucked down to the eighth circle of Hell.

The Editors

3. Why Read?

In my house in Freetown there is a room that the landlord calls the library. That term is over grandiose, perhaps. It is not much more than a cubicle, with a view out towards the mango tree and the guard-post at the top of the compound.

Bookshelves line one wall of the library. Their contents fascinate me, as do the other antebellum relics in the house, like the green telephone with a rotary dial that sits on a table downstairs and still sometimes produces a dial tone, though there are next to no landlines now in the city. But the bookshelves in the library are intriguing not so much for their contents, as for the condition their contents are in.

At roughly head-height are four bound volumes, containing the laws of Sierra Leone for 1960. 1960 was the year before Sierra Leone became independent from Britain. On the inside front cover of each volume a rubric is printed: “A poisonous insecticidal solution has been used in binding this book,” it states.

Whatever that half-century-old pesticide was, it was not strong enough. The covers of the law books have been excavated, run through, burrowed by some invertebrate. Probably by a termite. Meanwhile, the outsides of the covers are streaked with grey-green mould.

There’s almost too much metaphor here. It’s too apparent, a sleight of authorial hand that you couldn’t get away with in fiction. The laws have rotted. The decay of the law is almost too apt an analogy for what happened after Sierra Leone became independent, the year after the books were made.

Corruption swelled, the second post-independent prime minister stole $250 million in 1960s money in three years in office. His successor made himself president, declared a one-party state, and made off with an estimated half a billion dollars. Within a few years began disintegration, the long, slow process of state failure that, three decades later, would birth one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars.

But those metaphors are not what I seek to say, not now at least. I just want to say that I live in a place where books rot. I have always read, in childhood, in adolescence; later for three years of an English degree reading was my profession. But living in a place where the climate is physically hostile to the continued existence of literature does confer upon it extra value.

There are no bookshops in Freetown, either. That’s the other side of this bind. The city lacks many things; enough grid power to allow the concept of the ‘power cut’ to have some meaning, reliable telecoms, and, for much of its benighted population, reasonable nutrition. But, selfishly, for me the lack of bookshops in Freetown grinds particularly hard.

There are a handful of establishments that do self-identify as such, but they sell self-help volumes  – sometimes bound in plastic, so you can’t assess their proposals pre-purchase – or religious tracts, or stationery. Not fiction. Meanwhile the few stalls that pile paperbacks on street corners, near the wheelbarrows full of coconuts and the racked pirate DVDs, largely offer trash, though I did once find a battered copy of William Boyd’s ‘Brazzaville Beach.’

It’s a two-headed problem then, reading in Sierra Leone, absent supply at one end, the inevitability of book rot at the other. The rot itself is symptomatic of a wider malaise. It is difficult to overstate the unpleasantness of Sierra Leone’s climate. Before vaccinations and anti-malarial medication Freetown was affectionately known as the ‘White Man’s Grave.’

Even the local slave trade, which for an uncomfortable period co-existed with a colony for freed slaves established in the late eighteenth century, did not really work financially until the local management was Africanised. The European slavers kept dying.

Enough of history. In Freetown the humidity approaches the absolute. I have heard that a temperature below 19 Celsius has never been recorded. The sea breeze penetrates about as far inland as a neap tide. Bizarrely, heroically someone – probably the Chinese – gifted the thuggish armed wing of the police arctic camouflage uniforms. The police wear these blue and white pyjamas without irony.

In these conditions rot is inevitable and unassailable, unless you are one of the lucky few that has air conditioning and can run it all day. In a city dependant on pricey diesel generators, 24 hour cooling is a considerable extravagance.

Everything rots. Mildew colonises clothes left in wardrobes. I returned from a trip to find the mordantly expensive Panama hat I had purchased only half in jest in London was acquiring a greenish tinge. And books, well, given long enough they will end up like the rotten laws in the library in my house.

Of course, there’s a fairly obvious solution to this problem set. The Kindle would seem to solve both the supply side of the reading problem in Freetown, and sidestep the issue of decaying pages. I have one too, a birthday gift from last year. I just don’t like it. Now is not the time to thrash out the hackneyed trope of the book as artefact. Nor does my disgust at the fact the fact that I couldn’t order Larry McMurtry’s western epic ‘Lonesome Dove’ on my UK-specification Kindle justify my subsequent neglect of it.

But, alongside irrational dislike, it is worth pointing out that with Sierra Leone’s medieval telecoms it is impossible to download books on the hop on a Kindle, as one can in Europe or America. Furthermore, electronics are not immune to this country’s climate either.

At last inspection my Kindle was alive. But once, not long after I arrived in Sierra Leone, I sat by night outside a hotel in the town of Makeni in the scorching centre of the country, my laptop cracked open on my knees. Moths and flying things flocked to the screen-light. Some days later other, smaller, at-a-different-stage-of-the-life-cycle things were hatching under the keyboard. They were scrambling out of the cracks between the QWERTYUIOP.

In this environment of scarcity, books become twinned with another, apparently incongruous set of objects; Land Rover parts. The two categories have little in common in the wider world, but in Freetown both are, to a greater or lesser extent, essential but unobtainable. I have written at length before about the travails of car ownership in Sierra Leone. Now is not the place to go into it again. It is suffice to say that you need Land Rover parts in Freetown like you (or at least I) need books, you can’t get either, and so both are things that you have to bring in.

For me, book shopping is one of the best things about shore leave, about not being in Sierra Leone. In London hitting up Skoob, the subterranean second-hand emporium in the bowels of the Brunswick Centre by Russell Square, or raiding Slightly Foxed on the Gloucester Road in South Kensington, is a pleasure every bit as keen as the company of western women who don’t work for NGOs, or the feel of fabrics that have never hosted mildew next to the skin.

Buying Land Rover parts is less fun. These days it’s largely done over the Internet. The prices are lower (but still ruinous) and, as with the acquisition of pornography, online shopping removes the need to have a face-to-face encounter with a store owner who may well be situated somewhere on the autistic spectrum. But once, purchased, Land Rover parts, like books, need carriage to Sierra Leone.

When I returned to Freetown after Christmas my luggage contained the following: Anthony Powell’s ‘At Lady Molly’s,’ two front suspension shock absorbers, James Mellow’s Hemingway biography ‘A Life Without Consequences’, an air conditioning front evaporator unit, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in Oxford World Classic’s paperback, a front driver’s door lock assembly, AS Byatt’s ‘Possession,’ a fuel filter, Bruce Chatwin’s ‘In Patagonia,’ an air filter, Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer,’ an oil filter, and Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘The Poisonwood Bible.’

There were also some more books. The key difference, I suppose, is that one day I plan to sell my car.

Simon Akam is Reuters’ correspondent in Sierra Leone. His website is www.simonakam.com and he has also written these which we think are excellent:  The Long and Winding Road (on Land Rover parts in Africa) and Stars of the Stalls (on second hand book shopping).