Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Traveling with Books through the UK

You see them everywhere when you travel, these funny kindred spirits of mine, hunched in train station benches over their Thomas Cook road maps or wandering through a museum with their finger on a paragraph nodding back and forth between some amazing hanging portrait and the explanation of the painter’s motivation in their guidebook. I love travelers who carry books.
Voltaire wrote… “When I want to travel, I head to the library.” And I get that, I do. I’m sure some of the world’s greatest travelers have never stepped outside their front door but rather live in an imaginary world of faraway places where ruins whisper and ancient cities beckon to be explored.
But as for me, I walk with a rolled up paperback in my coat pocket and a Lonely Planet wrapped in rubber bands under my arm. I need books when I move through the world.
Books explode in life. The people, the color, the history, the land, the language, the ways of life… books expand your travel in every way possible. In fact, there is no other greater feeling than reading about a place, about the artists and historians that have lived there, and then to go and see it for yourself. I really believe that.
This feeling is only second to the book/movie theory that I’ve outlined on this blog before. That reading a book and then going to see the movie (in that correct order, reversing it is always a disappointment) is one of the most pleasant experiences a person can have as they are able to virtually witness the pages come alive. Even if they disagree and hate the movie, they do so with a fervent passion that comes from loving the pages, the descriptive passages, the characters desires and dreams that have now become their own.
So it is also for the traveler who reads, and there is no better reading / traveling country, than the United Kingdom of England, who had the good sense to celebrate their writers and artists in the same way other countries vault their presidents, fallen soldiers, and religious leaders.
Let’s ponder just some on this list, and I’m not even going to mention Chaucer and Milton or… well, you know who’s coming just north of here in Stratford… but the travelogues of Byron or the brilliant class struggles of Dickens, the pondering brooding countryside life portrayed by the Bronte sisters or “come to life” descriptive passages found in Thackery or Trollope.
In fact, I have the most unusual confession to make, as a boy sitting in my mother’s library, perusing all of the great literature she left on the shelf for me to discover, browsing and falling in love with Tennyson and Browning, Hardy and Woolf, Lawrence and Forster and Wodehouse… I never really thought of them as British or foreign to me. In fact, I always just imagined them as American.
I know that’s absurd, to read Jane Austen or Rudyard Kipling and imagine them as American as Mark Twain or Ernest Hemingway, but I did. I just never made the distinction, even when they were writing about British cities or events in history through a particularly “English” eye and “stiff” upper lip, or using some Cockney’d slang that wrapped my brain’s tongue in knots… I still didn’t care, because they wrote in ways that stirred my imagination to soar. Their language was the very best that my language could become. They believed in ideals that only the greatest of men could accomplish. They described even the simplest, most mundane of daily events with such wit and care that I was enthralled. I wanted to be as them.
And so as I travel through this countryside, stopping to rest in a grassy field covered in clover and thistle or lay atop a stone wall descending into the mist, I fill my head with books. I re-read Jane Eyre and laugh outloud. I scribble in Vanity Fair and marvel. I close my eyes and recall passages from Tess of the D’Urbervilles or a Christopher Marlow poem and smile. I’m in England, and my head is lost in thought.

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