Adventures in Travel Reading

While traveling you open yourself up to new people, new cultures and new experiences. As you pass through a new place you find experiences as much by luck as anything else. Spending small amounts of time in each place your experience becomes defined by the brief interactions you happen upon. These become your memories and ultimately help shape the way you relate to the world.

I like to think of my travel library in the same way. With near constant movement and limited baggage I can only carry the book I am currently reading. Traveling through foreign countries and places where I can’t speak, let alone read, the language I never know exactly what book I will find next. The result is an interesting line-up of books brought to me as much by chance as by personal selection. Here’s a bit of what to expect as you travel and a few tips for maximizing your reading adventure while preserving your budget.

Ton Sai, like most well-touristed destinations in the developing world, may not have a single gas station but it has at least three used book stores. Anywhere that there are travelers there will be books. The shops on Ton Sai will buy your old book and sell you a new one left behind by some traveler who came before you. The result is an eclectic mix of literature from all over the world.

Looking through so many of these shops I have come to notice a few things. First of all, most of what people read while traveling is complete and utter crap! At least 80% of the stock of most shops is filled with cheap reads picked up at the airport and yellowing Nora Roberts romance novels. To be fair I am not sure if it is so skewed because this is what people leave, or if these types of books get selected against when other travelers are looking at what to buy and they become stuck in Thailand bookstore limbo. Luckily the remaining 20% will usually provide enough of a selection for you to find something.

In the end, the limited selection available is what makes the swapping more rewarding. Because there are only so many books available I push myself to read a wider variety than my 10 favorite authors who I will tend to rotate through at home. The result is a book list as diverse as the cities I visit.

Costs and Tips

Any major city will have a large bookstore with new English language books. The selection won’t be great but major titles and classics will generally be available. The problem with this option is that it is usually expensive and you won’t always be in a major city when you finish your book.

The used bookstores throughout SE Asia are all pretty similar. The standard policy is to give you half the retail price of the book you sell to them to be put towards your purchase of a new book. If you sell back to the same store you bought the book from they will often guarantee to buy it. I ran into problems a few times with stores refusing books I had purchased elsewhere because they found them too old looking or the edition resembled said yellowing romance novels (even though it was by Margret Atwood). A word to the wise: covers sell. If you are terribly concerned about being able to sell a book pick one that has some cover appeal.

Costs vary widely by store but on average I paid about $6 per book. When you are reading a lot and your three meals cost only $3 a day this can start to seem like a lot of money. Luckily a few free options exist as well.

When I cross paths with new and interesting travelers I will ask them if they have any books they have finished. Swapping with a new friend is both free and rewarding, giving you a small window into that person’s experience and offering them something of yours. Many hostels and cafes will also have bookshelves and while most suffer from the same sort of reverse selection that leaves legions of UFO novels and Danielle Steel reads on the bookstore shelves, there is occasionally a gem. Many of these shelves are free for the taking or free if you leave something behind. Always ask first!

Finally, there is the library. If you find yourself in one place for any extended period of time find a library and check it out. This is especially helpful in Europe where used bookstores with English language selections are few and far between and your budget is likely to be stretched even thinner. We have found that it usually only takes a passport and a few minutes to join the library and even the smallest town’s library will have some sort of an English language selection. Case in point, the library here in Finale Ligure where we have already checked out 4 books.

My personal reading adventure

I left California with a thin Murakami novel entitled Norwegian Wood. It was a horrible choice to start a multi-year journey with because it was only about 150 pages and was so good I wanted to devour it immediately. Which I did. Kyle took another route, borrowing a friend’s copy of Gödel, Escher, Bach, a 900 page behemoth on the intersection of art, music and mathematics. A few weeks into Ton Sai I finished the Murakami and had to look for my next book.

After Murakami I found an old Margret Atwood book called Cat’s Eye. It was hidden in the climbing shop bookstore disguised among the cheap romance novels. The book was fantastic, a vivid story of a girl growing up in Toronto in the 50’s. Once I swallowed that one whole I found Born to Run, a great non-fiction account of modern-day ultra-marathon running, secret tribes in Mexico, and human evolution from a distance running perspective. Even as someone who hasn’t run for the point of running in a very long time, I found the book interesting and inspiring. It’s a perfect example of the type of book I never would have picked at home, but am very happy I read. After the running book I found The Geography of Bliss. A bit more on-topic with my current situation, this one follows a journalist as he travels the world in search of the happiest places to try to define what makes people happy.

vogliadibaciFurther swapping and other chance encounters brought me Volcano by Shusaku Endo (one of Murakami’s influences), Bali Blues about the 2005 bombing of a nightclub in Kuta Beach, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover a Jungian exploration into male archetypes and psychology, Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven , and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers . If you like Murakami I definitely recommend Endo. He writes with a similar tone and character development. Kingsolver is another great author I had heard about but never read. Pigs in Heaven was fantastic and I can’t wait to get my hands on more of her books.

After all of these I was nearing the end of my stay in Asia and needed to brush up on my Italian, I scoured the shelves of Yogyakarta’s alley-way shops for something in Italian and easy enough for me to understand. At this point the curse became a blessing and I scored a hilarious 1980’s romance novel called “Voglia di Baci” telling the heartwarming story of love between a young idealistic law student and her older more conservative professor. At the hot price of $1.25 the bookstore owner was happy to see it go, I am sure it had been there for at least 10 years.

Now in Italy I’m onto another, more substantive Italian novel titled Due e Due that I checked out from the library. Can’t wait to see what’s in store next!

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