Was there ever a trip I took that didn’t involve a book—or a stack of books?
I don’t think so.
When I was a child, my family journeyed every summer from our home in Illinois to our grandparents’ summer cottage in northern Wisconsin—loaned to us by them for six weeks in June and July. We traveled in two cars—my mother and father driving, and we four children and our two Springer spaniels distributed evenly between them—on a journey that took (in those years before interstate highways) all day. Each of us kids brought along treasures to help the time pass. I brought books—as many as I could fit into a small brown cosmetic case that belonged to my grandmother. Stacked there neatly, and cushioned by a sack of anise candy, the books kept me company all day long and well into the weeks ahead.
During my elementary school years, most of my vacation reading material came from the last Scholastic Book Club order of the school year. A few of the books I brought were old favorites from my bookcase—The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, Understood Betsy—and sometimes my grandmother gave me a new book as an early birthday present just before the trip got underway. When I was a little older, the books were fatter and there weren’t so many of them—Little Women and Jane Eyre lasted longer than the car trip—but they, too, traveled with me in the little brown cosmetic case.
I remember deliberating for weeks about those books. If they were to be new ones, I had to be sure I would like them—I didn’t want to waste space on something that would lose its appeal within a few pages. That meant a series book, or an author I already knew, or at least a topic that I knew would hold my interest. So yes to Betsy Ray and Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames. Yes to Beverly Cleary and Louisa May Alcott. Yes to books about children with problems and the teachers and therapists who helped them, yes to books about children in other countries, and yes to biographies of writers and pioneers of all kinds.
I kept that up every summer—selecting books to accompany me on my travels—never suspecting that my choices were doing anything more than sweetening my days.
Later in life (as an English teacher, of course), when I traveled to Russia with my students, I carried along books I intended to leave behind. I suggested to my students that they do the same. The books had to be ones I could part with (The DaVinci Code) because the space they occupied in my carry-on would be given over on the return trip to my purchases. The books had to be intriguing enough to compete with the novelty of living in a foreign country (Year of Wonders), but universal enough that my Russian friends would want them (Harry Potter).
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: left in a Moscow hotel. The History of Love: left in a cardboard box filled with books in English that to this day circulates among young women working for NGOs in Rwanda. Something else, not so memorable, left in the airport in Lima. Another quick read, swapped out for The Human Comedy in a coffee shop in Colorado. I’ve left books behind all over the country and in places around the world. I see now that what I have done is leave bits of myself behind as well.
I still deliberate about the books I’ll read in the summer. These days when I travel, it’s often to a place where internet technology isn’t available and cell phones don’t work: it’s just the books I’ve selected and me, together for a stretch. Of course, I’ve got a Kindle now, but not the ability to order a title from my living room or (yes) my bed. So even the electronic library I amass each summer is carefully chosen ahead of time, and the same constraints apply: no set-asides if I can help it, yes to familiar authors and new information that I’ll happily anticipate settling in with, yes to long-time favorites. That means that Maisie Dobbs and V. I. Warshawski can come along any time, as can anything by Barbara Kingsolver or Colum McCann. This year I’ve stacked up the audio tape of All the Things We Cannot See (my favorite read of the past winter), a reflective piece on health care called God’s Hotel (recommended by friends), Archangel (a National Book Award winner), and a classic I haven’t read in years: A Tale of Two Cities. And about mid-July, I am expecting a literary guest to arrive: Miss Jean Louise Finch. Yes, I am anxiously awaiting To Set a Watchman. For good or bad or somewhere in between, it’s going to be wonderful to spend time with Scout again.
But as I was selecting my companions for this summer, I was struck not only by the longevity of this ritual, but by the impact of my choices. The books I selected in the summers when I was a child and the ones I choose today have done much more than help me pass time in a pleasant way. They’ve been formative, exerting on my personality the power and influence of theirs.
When books end, we don’t ever really set them aside. Oh, they take up space on our shelves, but they also take up residency in our minds. They are a part of who we are, remembered fondly as old friends, embraced as traveling companions on the trip through our lives.
Maybe that is why, when I encounter titles I know at a used book sale, or on a shelf in a coffee house, or in a collection set aside for hotel guests, they are immediately recognizable to me, dressed as they often are in tattered covers and battered spines. I can’t resist snatching them up, as if responding to a call: “Remember me? Here I am!”
So yes, I quite often say. Let’s travel together again. You’ll be very good company indeed!
A version of this post appeared last summer in the online site Nerdy Book Club.