July 21, 2012
Great Books—and the Best Places to Read Them
About 10 years ago, while passing a hot afternoon on the deck of a tourist lodge in Belize, a friend on his way out to go bird-watching asked why on earth I had my nose buried in a book. “Here we are in the jungle of Belize,” he said. “There are jaguars in the woods, and crocodiles in the swamp, and grackles in the trees—and you’re reading a book?” I explained that reading while traveling—if done right—can serve as a sensory supplement to one’s surrounding environment, not necessarily a distraction, as he believed. I explained that many years from now, any mention of Dove—a sailing memoir by Robin Graham—would sweep me right back to these Belizean tropical forests where I read the book, and the coral reefs off the coast, and the croc-filled lagoons, and the villages, sulking in the boggy Caribbean heat and odors of fermenting cashew apples and mangoes. And I was right. When I think of Dove, I go right back to Belize. Because reading a book charges up the mind with information and memories. These become entangled with the scents and flavors of reality, and rather than detract from an experience, a good book can enrich it. Never in the past 15 years have I left home for a week or more without a piece or two of literature, and below I list some of my favorite reads—and where best to read them.
Paris, Down and Out in Paris and London. Ernest Hemingway may have spent his days in Paris thoughtfully fingering his beard at sidewalk cafes and drinking the house wine, but George Orwell voluntarily dived into a life of grim poverty as he made a journalistic effort to understand the plight of Europe’s working classes. In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell describes short-term jobs in the Parisian restaurant circuit, weeks of unemployment, living in a pay-by-the-week hotel and selling his clothes to scrape up the rent. He lives franc to franc, describing the logistics of saving coins and managing free meals and dodging the landlady. In one especially dismal spell, Orwell and a friend named Boris, living together at the time, go three days without food. Following false rumors of job openings, they drag their feet throughout the city, growing weaker every hour. Orwell even goes fishing in the Seine in the hopes of landing something to fry in a pan. When the pair finally acquires a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine, they devour what must be among the most satisfying dinners ever eaten in Paris. Orwell eventually lands steady work, but not before learning how strangely liberating it is to hit rock-bottom, to own nothing in the world but the clothes you’re wearing and have no worries but finding a bite to eat. T. S. Eliot, an editor at Faber & Faber at the time, would later decline the manuscript offered by the young writer: “We did find [the book] of very great interest,” Eliot wrote, “but I regret to say that it does not appear to me possible as a publishing venture.”
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