Why books are a great reason to escape
Ardent readers are parasites upon the current of history: we live for the drift, the doze, and the dream; we hope someone else is doing the steering.
People who like books, far as I can tell, don't like real life very much. I'm an extreme case of the malady, but escape is the first and best cause for the formulation of stories; and all language is ultimately narrative. To live in a world constructed mostly out of reading, rather than experiencing, is to resign yourself to the fact that almost nothing in the world you observe is likely to be as fascinating, plausible, and organic as the pages you hold and the worlds you visit with your imagination. Ardent readers are parasites upon the current of history: we live for the drift, the doze, and the dream; we hope someone else is doing the steering.
Any reader, for example, will tell you the toughest part of travelling is figuring out which books to carry. They set the tone of the trip-to-be. If it is a vacation, is it to be one of dashing exploits? Best, then, to pack light. Hemingway, or Mark Twain, or Angela Carter (especially useful for an erotic holiday). Or perhaps happy beach-reads, a Barbara Pym and a Mitford sister. Who wants to read Dickens in Goa anyway? Then again, when better to tackle a Master? There is peace, solitude, and, most important, no internet. During work trips, this dilemma grows thornier, especially with writers. There are the research books, the mood books, the poet-of-the-moment. Then there are place books and play books, and these last are most vexing of all. They must entertain, but not distract; always beguile and never seduce.
Packing books is an art I've never mastered. I carry four books per day. Despite my travelling library, I achieved vacation perfection but once: reading Ryszard Kapuściński’s Travels with Herodotus perched upon a tree in Kasauli. The book was the Polish foreign journalist's final outing, and it stores snippets from across his legendary career. In India, his first assignment, he arrives armed with Herodotus’ Histories, an English dictionary, and cheerful orientalism.
I approached India not through images, sounds, and smells, but through words: furthermore, words not of the indigenous Hindi, but of a foreign, imposed tongue [English] which by then had so fully taken root here that it was for me an indispensable key to this country, almost identical to it... I noticed, too, the relationship between naming and being, because I realised upon my return to the hotel that in town I had seen only that which I was able to name: for example, I remember the acacia tree, but not the tree standing next to it, whose name I didn’t know.
Later, on a visit to China, he compares the two:
The Hindu is a relaxed being, while the Chinese is a tense and vigilant one. A crowd of Hindus is formless, fluid, and slow; a crowd of Chinese is formed before you know it into disciplined marching lines. One senses that above a gathering of Chinese stands a commander, a higher authority while above the multitude of Hindus hovers an Areopagus of innumerable and understanding deities...
… How does one survive? This is the question that Chinese thought attempts to answer. It is perhaps the most practical philosophy the world has ever known. In contrast to Hindu thought, it rarely ventures into the realms of transcendence, and tries instead to offer the ordinary man advice on enduring the situation in which he finds himself for the simple reason that, without either his will or consent, he was born into this cruel world of ours…. Confucianism is the philosophy of power, of bureaucrats, of structure, order, and of standing at attention. Taoism is the wisdom of renouncing the game, of contenting oneself with being only an insignificant particle of indifferent nature.
In an early section of his Travels, Kapuściński gently mocks the ambition of Herodotus and his desire to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and preserve the fame of important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks. Herodotus might be antiquity’s favourite historian, but he was as plagued by follies and fancies as any mortal. He was fascinated with opulent Croesus, the first rival to contest the Persian emperor Cyrus in his bid to control Asia. Croesus was defeated, though Cyrus was later conquered by his own greed. He expanded his empire until he encountered the Massagetae and their wild queen Tomyris. The battle that ensued, Herodotus informs his reader with great gravity, was the ‘fiercest between non-greeks as has ever been waged’. Cyrus won the battle, but lost his life.
Kapuściński next relates the poignant tale of how brave Zopyrus disabled himself and betrayed Babylon in service to his king, Darius, as well as the saga of Histiaeus, who first saved and then revolted against the selfsame Darius, winding up a pirate off the isle of Lesbos (where the poetess Sappho lived, hence the modern world "lesbian" or "Sapphist"). Histiaeus meets his end impaled and scalped, and Darius orders the skull be sent to the capital. To this story, Kapuściński adds his characteristic two bits: To Susa (from Sardis)! After three months on the road, what must that head, even embalmed, have looked like?
He makes this observation while himself on the trail between the two ancient cities. Along the way, he stops to tell a fable of his own, about why Persians wash their face if they witness sunrise in the desert:
The sun, much like man, needs water in order to live; if, upon awaking, it sees that it can drink a few drops from the man’s face, it will be kinder to him in the hour it becomes cruel- at noon. At it will manifest this kindness by providing him with shade. It does not give shade directly, but by the agency of various other things- a tree, a roof, a cave. We know full well that without the sun, those things would have no shade. And so the sun, smiting us, supplies us with a defensive shield.
If you ever see the desert dawn, thus, this is how the wise traveller behaves. I, on the other hand, will be rooting through my bookbag for a pencil.