Reading In Place

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.
–Henry Miller

Years ago I stood in the bookstore and read the words Kim Stafford wrote about the poems that his father, William Stafford, was commissioned to write for the Methow River sign project—his poetry accompanies U.S. Forest Service interpretive signs at 7 spots along a 49 mile stretch of the beautiful Methow Valley, WA.

Kim writes: “William Stafford speaks of the place, at the place. The experience of reading these poems in place closes the circle of William Stafford’s approach to poetry, where the poem makes no greater claim than the sound of the water itself.”

As I read was seized by the desire to do just that, and it turned into an unforgettable trip.

After the ice eases its grip, you can stand by the road along the Methow River in the Cascade mountains of Washington state, in a very quiet place, and read, ‘I like to live in the sound of water…’
-Kim Stafford

Encountering literature in the very place where it was conceived or about which it is written provides a unique and satisfying pleasure. In the bookstore we often have requests from our globe-trotting customers who want to read novels or history about the places they visit, either in preparation for their trip or to take along to enjoy during their travels.

Just for fun, as you’re making travel plans for summer, here is a little smattering of books to accompany you on your journeys. Of course there are too many to mention in our small space here, or to even scratch the surface of interesting topics like destinations inspired by homes of famous authors or iconic bookstores, or culinary travel. So this will have to be an ongoing conversation.

Ireland immediately conjures the work of James Joyce or Samuel Beckett, but if you’re wanting something a bit more contemporary, one of my favorite Irish authors is Niall Williams with History of the Rain and This is Happiness. Williams paints such a tender and colloquial picture of Ireland, you will expect one of his characters to be waiting for you as you step off the plane.

Home to so many great poets, The Emerald Isle also requires some poetry reading, and Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems or 100 poems will slip right into your carry-on.

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans…

-Seamus Heaney, from Postscript

Some of the most beautiful writing I have encountered about Italy is in D.H. Lawrence’s collection of three essays: Twilight in Italy, Sea and Sardinia, and Sketches of Etruscan Places. These three essays are combined in Penguin’s D.H. Lawerence and Italy which, though currently out of print in the U.S., is easily attainable through our independent partners at biblio.

It is so still and transcendent, the cypress trees poise like flames of forgotten darkness, that should have been blown out at the end of the summer.

-D.H. Lawrence

For additional exquisite writing that covers a wider swath of European travel, Patrick Leigh Fermor is unequaled. His trilogy of books: A Time of Gifts, Between The Woods and the Water, and The Broken Road, chronicle his journeys across Europe as a young man—England to Constantinople. He travels on foot and by boat through Holland, France, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, winding up in Greece. Fermor’s intelligence and spirit of adventure make him a magnificent traveling companion.

Starting at dawn, ending at dark and only separated by light sleep, each day in the mountains seemed to contain a longer sequence of phases than a week at ground level… I felt deeply involved in these dizzy solitudes, more reluctant each minute to come down again and ready to go on forever.

-Patrick Leigh Fermor

I’ve already spent a good deal of time in past newsletters talking about Japan and excellent novels about Japan, so I hope you will revisit those titles if you are interested.

If you happen to be heading to New York City, I can recommend a favorite novel of mine by Teju Cole called Open City. The protagonist Julius, is a young Nigerian doctor just finishing his residency. To assuage his busy yet lonely life he begins taking long walks, using the time to experience the city and his own thoughts and memories in remarkable ways.

In this way New York City worked itself into my life at a walking pace.

-Teju Cole

That walking pace is my preferred tempo as well, and there are many good guidebooks that provide suggestions for interesting foot routes. For instance Paris In Stride and  Amazing London Walks, or books that celebrate the walks of well known authors, like Globetrotting: Writers Walk the World or Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau.

It is at a walking pace (or slower!) that nature can best be appreciated— either in one of our many spectacular National Parks, or even closer to home.

I recently came across a passage about Vincent Van Gogh’s encounter with a book published in 1854 called Voyage Autour De Mon Jardin (Tour Round My Garden) by Alphonse Karr. Evidently Karr had a friend who loved nothing more than to travel, but Karr wanted to show his friend how much there is to discover close to home, so in the form of fifty-nine letters he leads his friend on an excursion around his garden. Karr’s book made a deep impression on young Van Gogh as he turned his attention to observe otherwise easily overlooked scenes that were right outside his door.

If one truly loves nature, one finds beauty everywhere.

-Vincent Van Gogh

I have certainly found it to be true that beauty is always accessible to us just by stepping outside and looking around, or looking up, as the case may be.

The morning cloud formations alone provide a delightful daily light show, and yes, there are even guide books for clouds! Take a look at The Cloudspotter’s Guide or The Cloud Book.

So if travel is about having new experiences, then whether you are someone who starts planning your next trip before your bags are even unpacked from the last, or if you’re someone who prefers armchair travel because of health or finances or concern about the impact of tourism, “there is no frigate like a book” to help transport us.

Happy Reading!