The Companionable Presence of a Book

Now that I’m recovering from cataract surgery, I find that I can’t read for more than short stretches of time, and I’m reminded of how essential to my day are the acts of reading and writing. I’m the sort of person who carries a book along wherever I go, on the chance that I’ll find a moment or two to plunge back into the unfolding world of a novel or short story. I carry a notebook as well, to capture whatever small patch of inspiration I might stumble across. These days my iPad often doubles as book and notebook.

So, sitting here at home on the couch, impatiently letting my eyes rest before I try a little more reading, I’ve been thinking back to the unusual settings I’ve carried the companionable presence of a book. When I was nineteen I canoed for about 400 miles on the Yukon River one stretch of a summer, and I can remember reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse while sitting by the edge of the water after a long day of paddling. I don’t understand now why in the world I thought this novel would be a proper fit with a place so wild that we could travel for days without seeing another soul, where we could turn a corner and surprise a moose into disappearing up the riverbank and into the forest. But I do recall the exhilaration of reading the passage where Mr. Ramsey’s “splendid mind” has reached the Q of knowledge but cannot move further to R, while before me the midnight sun slipped briefly behind the peaks of the Canadian Rockies. I still have my copy of the book, a bit waterlogged from a tumble into white water.

I’ve lived in small villages in the West African country of Ivory Coast, where my wife, the anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, has conducted her research on the culture of the Beng people, and of course I brought along a pile of books for those long journeys. In the photo below, I’m sitting before our two-room mud-brick house in the village of Kosangbé, writing in a notebook, perhaps inspired after reading from one of the two books beside me. The book on the top is The Voice that Is Great within Us: American Poetry of the Twentieth Century, edited by Hayden Carruth. I still have that copy too, rich with the scent of African dust.

Two stories of reading in Africa most stand out in my memory. The first goes back to 1980, when I read Njal’s Saga, perhaps the greatest of the medieval Icelandic sagas, filled with blood feuds that last generations, punctuated by complex legal maneuverings between the aggrieved parties at a formal gathering called The Thing. Again, I wonder, what possessed me to bring such a book to a tropical country? (I also read a great deal of African literature while living in Ivory Coast, including Okot p’Bitek’s magnificent Song of Lawino). But this particular story of my reading comes right after I finished the book, sitting in that same palm rib chair pictured above, and realizing as a chill swept through me that once again malaria had come my way.

It was the most serious attack I ever endured, and deep in the night, with my temperature stuck at an alarming 106 degrees, my wife made a re-hydration drink for me in another room while I lay beneath mosquito netting, listening to the clank of her metal spoon stirring against a metal cup. That clanking transformed, in my fevered mind, into the sound and sight of two ghostly Viking warriors—right out of Njal’s Saga—standing beside the bed and striking at each other’s sword and shield. A memorable moment in my history of reading, but I do not recommend anyone seeking out malaria for a similar experience.

The second memory also involves illness, unfortunately. In 1993, near the end of a summer’s stay in the Beng village of Asagbé, I came down with pneumonia, and spent the good part of two weeks knocked out in bed. By that time I’d gone through nearly all the books I brought along to the village. Only one was left, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and what an unsettling fit that was, as I hacked away painfully beneath mosquito netting while reading about the doomed coughing patients of an isolated tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps.

On the other hand, reading Miguel Torga’s Tales & More Tales from the Mountain while exploring the wild northern ranges of Portugal with my family a few years ago helped me to better understand the cunning behind this medieval stone-walled wolf trap we came upon.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who has found a sometimes incongruous fit between the outer world of travel and the inner travel of reading. If anyone out there also has a strange or oddly fitting mix of book and place, feel free to leave a comment!

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6 Comments

  1. I often wonder why, when I go on vacation, do I always bring a book that takes me away from the place I’ve spent time and money on to explore?

    I’ve read about London in Paris, about backpacking in China while hiking the Alps, and about European food while eating hamburgers in the U.S. Perhaps no matter where we go to escape, we will always need an escape from the escape?

  2. admin says:

    What a great line, needing an escape from the escape. Thanks, Chantal!

  3. Levi Stahl says:

    This isn’t as interesting or excusable as reading while malarial, but I once read about 75 pages of Crime and Punlishment while drunk. I was making my my way home–waiting on the Tube, riding the Tube–from a leaving party for a bookstore coworker in London, and I remember it being an intense experience, as if I were being bathed in the book.

    I tend to go for the more obvious matches of place and book: on a trip to Japan last year I read The Tale of Genji; on trips to London I usually bring along a volume of Dickens and A Dance to the Music of Time. But maybe you’ll inspire me to try mixing it up!

  4. admin says:

    Thanks, Levi, I love that story. Reading is never simple, is it? Any book offers different versions of itself, depending on where someone reads it.

  5. lisa peet says:

    I somehow ended up reading Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain on a trip to western Ireland a few years ago. And while I didn’t ultimately end up loving the book as a whole, the descriptions of the Chinese landscape segued perfectly. Reading these intensely evocative passages about the Chinese river gorges and mountains while sitting on the misty oceanside cliffs of Cork and Kerry counties threw where I was into sharper relief, and enhanced the whole physical experience in a way I still can’t quite pin down.

  6. admin says:

    Lovely, Lisa–virtual and actual landscapes, giving you a stereoscopic memory of travel . . .

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