Monday, October 09, 2006

Vacation Reading

I’ve always associated travel with books, unfortunately, sometimes, to the detriment of where I was traveling. For instance, I can’t tell you much about our family trips around England and Europe as a young child, only that my traveling companions were the animals from Blackberry Farm (I was especially fond of Emily the Goat), many of the Mr. Men, and Peter Rabbit and his friends. My wise mother obviously chose small books that traveled well.

When I was in college, burnt out on texts and analytic reading of the classics, I was more into the typical “beach read” sort of vacation reading. Stephen King came along with Cujo on a leash the first time I went to Florida. The one exception to this was spring break my final year, when I was so far behind in my reading for my history of ancient Rome course I spent a good deal of it reading excerpts from The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.

When I was single, I seemed to spend most of my vacation time visiting friends who’d moved to places I’d never been. One vacation in Texas was spent reading two books of urban legends that inspired my friend Eddie and me to make up one of our own to tell at a dinner party with some of his friends. Unfortunately, we couldn’t keep up the hoax and ended up telling everyone what we were doing (too bad. It would be fun to log onto and read that no girl ever found her ring in the stomach of a shark she was dissecting in her biology class). I flew out to Oregon trying to spot Tom Robbins’s roadside attractions from different heights and angles, and I flew back with Tom Wolfe trying to get me to drop acid.

As you can see, I wasn’t exactly choosing my books based on the places I was visiting. This was a concept that never even occurred to me. I liked to go where I was going, find the books about the places I was visiting, and bring them back with me. I loved truly being able to picture the places described in the books, and I could pretend I was still back where I was instead of in a house full of roommates who were driving me crazy or a tiny apartment that desperately needed cleaning.

Then Bob came along, and I realized we differed completely in our approaches to vacation reading. He would choose novels based in the places he was going and start reading them weeks before he left. He encouraged me to try this approach, so with some trepidation, I began reading Michener's Hawai’i before we left for our honeymoon and was about halfway through it when we boarded the plane. (But I also had War and Peace along just in case.)

I have to admit it was kind of exciting to visit Honolulu and to see some of the places described in the book before we set off for other islands. However, I must stress kind of. I still went around shopping for things like Cook’s journals, Mark Twain’s musings on the Sandwich Islands, and Hawaiian folktales to bring back with me, so I could relive this place over and over again.

Over the years, though, I’ve become a complete convert to reading books set in the place where I am while traveling. I start the process of collecting such books about a month before I go. I’ve always tended to be somewhat liberal in my definition of “where I am traveling.” If I’m going to Oregon, books that take place in Northern California are close enough. Likewise with a Caribbean island and books that take place anywhere in the Caribbean. But then, two years ago, I went to Guatemala and read portions of a Michener-type novel called Tikal by Daniel Peters while sitting under a tree in the middle of the ruins of that grand old city. I read about cutter ants just after hiking through the jungles and watching lines of them carrying their cut leaves across our paths. This inspired me to read Adolph Bandelier’s The Delight Makers while exploring the ruins he discovered in New Mexico and attending a Native American feast day that featured Delight Makers. These were magical experiences for magical vacations.

When we decided to go to Maine this year, my books were, once again, chosen with Maine in mind. One of them, however, was not. Litlove had not too long ago mentioned in a comment that I might like Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, a short little book I received from Amazon two days before I left and decided I certainly had room to tuck in my suitcase. Another was most definitely a “Maine” book, Louise Dickinson Rich’s We Took to the Woods, which I’d discovered through one of The Hobgoblin’s posts.

I didn’t realize my Tikal and Bandelier experiences had “ruined” me until I started reading Rich the night we spent in Portsmouth, NH before heading to Acadia. She lived deep in the inland woods of Maine. The little cabin we were renting was on the coast in Southwest Harbor. I thought, “this isn’t going to work. It’s not the right part of Maine.” I picked up Fadiman’s book to discover she had a whole chapter on “You Are There” reading, which I gobbled up as though it were the first meal I’d cooked after a long fast, a meal that had turned out flawlessly. Feeling fully satiated with the knowledge that “there” means “there,” not some close approximation to it, I decided maybe I’d save We Took to the Woods for some other time.

Then we arrived at our cabin. Turns out it was in the woods. It was only accessible via a footpath (granted, that footpath was well lit and probably wasn’t even 1/20th of a mile long, but I could still pretend I was a member of Louise’s family or a friend staying with them having to walk long roads through the woods to get home). I entered the cabin and immediately noticed in the little desk area (a nook where I could certainly picture Louise with her typewriter and notebooks and pens, busy at work) a guest book that dated back to 1932. We Took to the Woods was written not too long after that. I also discovered I needn’t have brought any books with me. The cabin had shelves of books, just the sort of things Louise would have read.

Fall and winter come early in Maine, and it was beginning to get chilly up there. When we lit a fire in the fireplace for the first time, not realizing the grate needed to be pushed all the way back for proper ventilation, thus filling the entire place with black smoke, I was back in 1930s Maine with no electricity, dependent on a fireplace that might do exactly this, wondering how I was going to get the smoke out when opening the door was bound to bring a howling wind dumping snow all over the floor. When I cooked meals in the tiny little kitchen without the help of such conveniences as blenders, can openers younger than fify years old, and a dishwasher, I could pretend this was just like cooking without an electric stove and oven, reading cookbook recipes by the light of a kerosene lamp. When we went on seven-mile hikes, stepping stones across streams, and occasionally losing a trail, I was Louise, trying to prove she knew her way around those woods and couldn’t possibly get lost.

So, now I have to change my tune. Reading at some close approximation to where you are can be a wonderful thing, especially when the author was so obviously mistaken. She’d been in the woods so long, she’d forgotten where she was. She most definitely was in a cabin in the woods of Southwest Harbor, on which one side was a body of water called the sound, not the river.


Anonymous said...

I so enjoyed reading about Maine -- through your eyes and Louise's. Whenever I read Blueberries for Sal to my boys, I fantasize about being that mother, in that kitchen, putting up blueberries for the winter. I've only been to Maine once -- to a wedding in Rangeley and it was really wonderful. Your cabin sounds ideal.

litlove said...

Fantastic post as ever, Emily! I've never been organised enough to read books that pertain to the vacation spot, but the way you write about it, I'm beginning to really see the merits. And how wonderful to find a visitor's book dating back to 1932! I love that kind of thing and start to become curious about the lives of the people who've preceded me. Did you check for Louisa's name? I have a feeling it might have been there...

Emily Barton said...

Bloglilly, the cabin WAS ideal. You're right, Blueberries for Sal is another one to put you right there, isn't it?

Litlove, what a dolt I am. I was way too busy seeing where people were from and reading their comments about the cabin to pay much attention to their actual names. I should have looked for Louise! Oh well, we plan to go back, so I'll let you know...