There are few things worse than being rebuked by the very books you have promised yourself you will read. They wind up in the most ingenious places – acting as impromptu rests for cups of tea, holding open windows, propping up the leg of a wonky table – just visible enough to quietly remind you they’re still there, still unread. What degradation for a good, maybe even great book! (But how would you know? you haven’t read it!)
A few years ago, I had managed to accrue an above-average number of such sorry cases, mostly acquired in a moment of wistful thinking and almost always in haste. I wasn’t exactly sure of their precise number but they seemed to appear in my flat with increasingly pugnacious frequency, as if they were threatening to stage a minor but bloody rebellion against their unappreciative host. They ranged from The Odyssey to more recent behemoths that had always held me in an almost hypnotic fascination, some on the strength of their titles alone (Gravity’s Rainbow, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). There were the comic novels of Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse, and more serious, contemporary works that had simply caught my eye on the way past an alluring window display, such as Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned and Love and Summer.
Around that same time, a few adventurous friends of mine suggested a three-month backpacking excursion through Central America. I said yes (of course!), and as the months leading up to the trip turned into weeks and then days, I became both increasingly excited about the journey and evermore beset with indecision about how to quell the steadily escalating situation of the books I would have to leave behind. I laid them all out on my bed. Instead of bloodthirsty rebels, they now appeared to be gazing up at me expectantly, hopefully, like glassy-eyed orphans.They now appeared to be gazing up at me expectantly, hopefully, like glassy-eyed orphans. There were simply too many to choose from. In the end, I resolved that the most sensible thing to do was take them all. So, that’s what I did.
I arrived at the airport trailing my backpack, which, as a small mercy, also came equipped with tiny wheels. This served, initially at least, to hide from my friends that I was travelling with what was essentially a mobile library. When we got to the other end and my backpack flopped ungracefully from the carousel, I saw that an orange tag had been tied to it. On the tag was a stickman buckling at the knees, struggling to lift an overstuffed suitcase more than a few inches off the ground. I decided to interpret this as a compliment, like a rosette. I, unlike the stickman, had made it! Or so I thought. As we left the airport to find our way to the public transport, I attempted to swing my backpack-cum-bookcase onto my shoulder, which resulted in a scene Charlie Chaplin would have been proud of. I went completely off-kilter in the same direction as my luggage, nearly careening into a cordoned-off queue of tax-refund-seekers, before we both came down with a slap on the polished marble.
‘What have you got in there?’ asked one of my friends as the bus appeared and I lifted, not without some strain, my backpack on to my bowing shoulders, ‘archeological findings?’
When we arrived at the hostel and found our way to the dorm we performed the usual ritual of tenderly laying our backpacks down on our beds and retrieving a few vital items before heading out into the world. However, as I attempted to surreptitiously undo the oppressively bulging zip that ran along the outside of my backpack without attracting too much attention, a gaggle of pages flapped their way into the room, as if my books were shaking themselves off after being couped up for a lengthy journey. My friends were gazing over my shoulder in amazement at the sheer audacity of what I had packed.
I had thought it best, and certainly less discouraging, to leave my flock uncounted, so as not to have too concrete a notion of what I was letting myself in for. One of my friends, a scientist, quickly corrected this omission by tallying them up and arranging them before me in stacks of ten. Fifty. According to her calculations, this meant roughly a book every two days. She pointed out this was hardly a realistic ratio if I actually wanted to see anything of these diverse places, and of course she had a point. But, I found myself pathetically riposting: there were bound to be a few long bus journeys, not to mention the odd overcast or rainy day when I could make up for lost time. . .
And yet, despite the incredulity of my traveling companions, what slowly emerged from this freshly discovered cargo of mine was a new sense of resource. After we returned from a self-guided tour through the city and were back in the dorm, my friends began browsing through my backpack and creating waiting lists between themselves of who would read what first. Another interesting phenomenon was the way they would treat me with ever-increasing derision when we were transitioning from one place to the next, as if each journey, no matter how fleeting, was a renewed opportunity to remind me of my foolishness, whilst offering me the kind of intense concern reserved for those with an impairment.
‘Do you have enough water?’
‘Is your back hurting?’
‘Do you want to stop?’
‘Is the sun in your eyes?’
‘Do you want to borrow my hat?’
‘How are the books?’
When one of them asked me this final question, I replied with a strain in my voice, ‘In what sense do you mean?’ I had, after all, made steady progress through several of my Stacks, as I had begun to affectionately call them.
What became a constant source of delight for me, during our frequent changes of location, was the daily routine of my friends gathering around and voicing their total disbelief that I would get the formidable Stacks back in their rickety little Library.
My friend the scientist was particularly adamant that repacking the books was, solely in terms of the basic laws of physics, impossible. She consulted the faded lettering on my weather-beaten backpack as to its exact volume, measured in litres, versus the volume of fifty books, for which she did a rough calculation based on my very ad-hoc estimation of average page numbers per book. No, she said, shaking her head, there was simply no way I was ever going to get that mistreated backpack to do my wicked bidding. There was simply no way I was ever going to get that poor mistreated backpack to do my wicked bidding.
And then right before her disbelieving eyes the zip finished its bumpy little orbit around the edge of my remarkably accomodating companion and she was silenced for another day.
There seemed, in these daily trails of my careful redistribution of the Stacks into their Library, some beautiful and covert collusion between us, as if, despite the discomfort they had caused me on the journey here, they had quietly agreed to make up for it by performing this physics-defying stunt. So whilst I concede that an e-reader would have made my journey much lighter, I can’t easily imagine forming this type of unspoken connection with a single device.
My tenderness for their number only increased as our journey wore on, both as I got to know more about them individually, their ideas, characters and meanings, as they took on traces of the lands we were busy exploring – grains of sand, seaspray from a choppy ferry ride. Some were moulded into an entirely new shape. My books were not merely passive freeloaders on this voyage, out-of-place misfits that should have stayed safely stowed at home, but were with us, quite literally for every step of the way, and were our constant and deeply involved companions.
The incident which brought this home, not just to me but to my friends, occured when we had gone with a small group of fellow backpackers on a shoestring snorkeling expedition, a mile or so off the coast of Nicaragua. As the boatride was set to take about an hour there and back we had, each of us brought along his or her current beau. Me: Howard’s End by E.M. Forster. The Scientist: What Is the What by Dave Eggers. And my other two friends: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. The skipper signalled that we had arrived at the preferred spot, and we put away our books and donned our goggles, then jumped in to glimpse the wonders of the teeming coral that was at a diveable distance below us. As we hung weightlessly on the surface, entranced by the movement of light across this new aquatic universe, our ears would occasionally surface for a brief moment, which was enough to hear the sound of a rising commotion back in the noise-ridden world above. Our heads all sprouted from the water in unison, like furtive seals who had sensed the first fin-splash of a predator, just in time to witness the length of the sun-yellow hull of our boat being overturned by a particularly monstrous wave. Our crestfallen skipper jumped free in time and began to swim towards us and splutteringly urged us not to panic, despite the fact that we were unable to see land in any direction and the boat was much too large to turn back over. He urged us to swim with him to the boat, grip onto the upturned hull and wait to be rescued.
As we waited there, helplessly reassuring each other that it would all turn out okay and checking that no one had been injured, I saw each of my friends press their snorkelling masks against the agitated surface of the water and scour the shimmering seabed for their beloved books.
Also on Granta Online:
Still Lifes from a Vanishing City: Photographs of Yangon by Elizabeth Rush.
Ali The Muscle: Johnny West reports from Lebanon.
Granta Audio: Jamil Ahmad in conversation with Ellah Allfrey.