This fear of running out of books can be traced back to the vacation we spent in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the mid 1970s. I ran out of reading so I went into the small local bookstore and asked for a copy ofMiddlemarch. The clerk, a young girl about 18 years old looked puzzled, so I said “You know, Middlemarch, by George Eliot.”
She replied “Is it new?”
“No.” I answered. “It was written over a hundred years ago. It’s a classic.”
“What else did he write?” she asked.
I left the store with a lurid roman-a-clef about psychotic twin gynecologists in Manhattan, and vowed never to leave home without sufficient literary materials to last at least twice as long as any planned vacation.
This worked well for me, until the year I went to Hawaii over Christmas. Some of the airlines have become very strict about baggage weight, and between the books and the cameras, and snorkeling gear, I was 30 pounds over the allotment before I even left New York. Even after I crammed as much as I could into my already overcrowded carry-on bag, I still had to pay a hefty supplementary fee.
So, when packing for a trip to Spain last spring, I decided to limit myself to only three books. For the guide book, I selected the trusty Michelin, since it has the most in-depth information about the sights in each city (though I did include some photocopied pages of walking tours and restaurants from Fodor and Frommer). I also selected two books to read, both of which I sampled before I left, so that I was sure that I would want to read them on the trip.
The flight over to Spain went smoothly. The airport lines at JFK were short, so we breezed through check-in. Between the long wait for departure, the hold over in Madrid, and the terrible airline movie choices, by the time we arrived in Barcelona, I had already finished the first book (Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point — a terrific guide for learning how to start marketing trends).
The first few days we stayed with friends in a very small suburban coastal town — Arenys de Mar, just north of Costa Brava. They speak no English, and so all of the books on the two 36 inch bookshelves in their apartment were in Spanish. Naturally, I did spend a bit of time looking them over. The top shelf contained a large collection of coffee table type books. These included travel photos of regions of Spain, world geography and collections from the great European Art museums. To my surprise they told us that these books were Christmas gifts from their local bank. I told them that back home we were lucky if our banks gave us a calendar. The bottom shelf contained a large set of books all in matching leatherette bindings. I knelt down for a closer look, and to my dismay, they turned out to be the complete works of Danielle Steele in Spanish translation.
So, for my bedtime reading, I started my second book — Boyle’s The Arc of Justice, the 2005 winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction, and a riveting account of a famous racial segregation battle in Detroit in the early 20th century. By the fourth day of a fourteen day trip, I realized that I was in grave danger of running out of reading material.
On the fifth day we bade our friends goodbye and headed for Barcelona where I could begin my search for something else to read in earnest. The week before I left home I read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, so my immediate reaction when I stepped off the train was how calm the city seemed. Mr. Orwell’s Barcelona was a teeming city with blood-stained bodies littering the Ramblas. Modern Barcelona is nothing like that.
We saw all the sites, the wonderful Gothic quarter where the sounds of the street musicians echo in the dark, narrow, high-walled passage ways, the Gaudi buildings and the Parc Guell. I stopped in a few new bookshops, but left empty handed. The English language books were few, and I had either read them, or was not really interested. I was not yet desperate for any old book to read, since I had not finished the Boyle, and I still had a least a week before the long flight.
We took an overnight train to Madrid, to meet some New York friends for a one week tour of Southern Spain. To my surprise, in the late spring, Madrid becomes a giant book fair. All along the wide boulevards near the Prado, at least one hundred temporary book stalls are set up. Dealers sell everything from new bestsellers to antiquarian books to scientific tomes. I saw a table with a stack of the Kama Sutra in Spanish right next to a stack of books about Pope John Paul. I am always a bit taken aback by what gets translated. Dan Brown, I can understand, but Richard Powers? Nobody reads him in English, so who would read him in the Spanish translations?
Our friends had just arrived from New York, and while they napped, I spent a delightful afternoon, looking for James Joyce in Spanish as well as something in English to read on the plane home. I was more successful in the former quest than the latter. Several of the kiosks offered small boxes of used English language books for sale. These were old dog-eared paperback bestsellers, mostly romance novels and self-help. I saw a very nice one volume reproduction of Description d’Egypte in French which I considered buying but did not want to add another 12-15 pounds to my luggage — it was smaller than the original, but still a substantial book.
I did manage to find a two volume paperback Spanish translation of Joyce’s Ulysses. I have a Penguin type edition I bought in Puerto Rico, but this set has more character. There is no glossy cover, and it is the type of book a poor Spanish intellectual would sit and read all day over one cup of espresso in a local café. (Note: For my first time readers, one of my goals in life is to obtain a copy of Ulysses in every language that it has been translated into.)
Spain has only one department store chain, oddly named El Corte Ingles. Madrid has a very large branch with several annexes, one of which is a two story bookstore. I went over looking for a hardcover copy of Ulysses as well as something to read in English, but left empty handed. I did learn something interesting, though. All of the bookstores carry the Spanish version of the Penguin Paperback classics. There are hundreds of books in the set, but instead of arranging them in alphabetical order, the books are arranged on the shelves in the order that they are added to the series. If you are looking for a classic, you need to use a long laminated plastic card which hangs from the shelves by a small chain. You look up the author and the title, find the publication number, and then search the shelves for that number.
Since I did not find anything new to read in Madrid, each night I slowed my reading pace, and read fewer pages trying to savor my book.
I saw lots of old churches, synagogues and mosques in Toledo, Cordoba, and Grenada, but no bookstores selling English books, except for guides and souvenir pictorials. I managed to pick up a few books about the old synagogues, but nothing that I would classify as airplane reading.
In Tangiers, I found a bookstall in the Casbah, left the tour group and braved the beggars, only to discover that all of the books were different editions of the Qur’an.
The very last day, we were staying in Marbella and spent the morning at the beach in Puerto Banus. I had purchased a T shirt at El Corte Ingles in Madrid, and discovered that I had misread the size, so I left the beach early to try to exchange it at the Puerto Banus branch. Lo and behold, right across the street from the department store was a large, brightly lit bookstore. Its name was Bookworld Espana and it contained only English language books. Puerto Banus is the British Florida, where many well to do retired British people escape the winter. I left with an interesting book, Don Quixote’s Delusions: Travels in Castilian Spain — at last something to enjoy on the long plane ride home.
We boarded a small plane in Marbella to take us to Madrid, and spent the short ride discussing the trip with our friends. We had never traveled together before, but all agreed it had been a great success. One friend became an expert in removing the heads and tails from cooked shrimp, so that his wife would be able to eat her dinner at night (that is how they served shrimp all throughout Spain). Another friend repeated his travel advice so often it became a mantra. “Don’t stand when you can sit. Don’t sit when you can sleep.” I learned never to travel without at least one extra book.
We landed in Madrid to change to our plane for New York. The airport is huge, with many concourses, and since we were given no direction from the airline, we came very close to missing the connecting flight. By the time we boarded the second plane I was exhausted, and promptly fell asleep. When I woke up, we had landed in New York. Groggily, I looked down and saw that the long sought-after book had remained unopened in my lap.
Joe Perlman operates Mostly Useful Fictions out of East Northport, NY and can be contacted at http://www.mostlyusefulfictions.com.