Margaret, the Traveling Reader, Part Two: On why I brought a book with me instead of valium, which book I brought, and why this matters at all.

Most of you (those of you who know me, at least, on the off chance that anyone who doesn’t know me is actually reading this) have probably heard me say that I don’t transition well. I don’t think I ever have. Moving from the Adirondacks to Connecticut when I was nine was a heart-wrenching experience, and the smaller moves that followed that one, like changing houses within the same town or even changing rooms within the same house, were jarring and difficult. Growing up, the only transitions I enjoyed were those related to the changing of the seasons, but once I began going to school even the sweep of summer into fall and the gradual warming of winter into spring filled me with unanticipated amounts of eagerness or dread.

In many ways, traveling–at least the way I’m traveling now–is an unending series of transitions, and I’d be lying if I said I’m never lonely, anxious, or unnerved. Places, faces, languages, foods, and time zones all seem to change nearly daily. I’m rarely in the same place twice, rarely in the same bed for more than three nights, and rarely in the same country, let alone the same city, for more than a week. Throughout the first few weeks of my trip, nearly everywhere I went I was accompanied by the subtle but uncomfortable sense of being in the wrong place, or of having done the wrong thing, sat in the wrong chair, used the wrong word, queued in the wrong line, gotten on the wrong train, paid with the wrong bill etc. I felt a bit like I imagine the American plug on my cellphone’s charger cord would feel (if it could) upon its encounter with the umpteenth variation on the outlet: designed for the same general purpose as all the similar-looking things around me, but still somehow unable to fit in where I should.

To combat this sense of being somehow wrong and dis(or mis)placed, before I left the states I made sure to pack at least one book that I’d already read, a book with whose pages I am intimately familiar, and in whose world I feel at home, so that when I discover that I have, in fact, stood in the wrong queue, said the wrong word and then attempted to pay for the wrong thing with the wrong bill, I can retreat without embarrassment into a world where I know all the names, where I understand the etiquette, and where, if I was suddenly asked to dance, I (theoretically) would not have to worry about not knowing any of the steps.

Late one night in London, while heading back to my hostel in Pimlico, I saw a woman about my age reading Notes from Underground on the tube and part of me was deeply impressed, in that sense of the word “impressed” which captures the “pressure” inherent to the physicality of the verb. Frankly, I admired the woman’s guts. My mind becomes too mired in the language of whatever I’m reading, in its style, cadence and diction. Words, phrases and rhythms favored by the writers I’m reading work their way into my thoughts and into my writing, sometimes even into my speech. If I read Notes from Underground while speeding beneath London in a hollow metal cylinder with half a dozen strangers shortly after midnight, I might crack up. At least twice on this trip already, I’ve nearly convinced myself that I’d come down with some awful disease or other and that I would imminently faint, vomit or go blind. It’s to curb myself from lunacy that I prefer someone like Jane Austen to Dostoyevsky, at least when it comes to foreign-travel reading. I was tempted to bring Persuasion, my current favorite of Austen’s novels, but since the copy I have I borrowed from my brother (or rather, from my brother’s book shelves in my mother’s basement), I decided against it. I have too much respect for my own books and for the books of others to carry someone else’s potentially-prized paperback backpacking across another continent without at least first asking permission.

Instead, I brought with me a book of my own that I purchased years ago in a used bookstore without having the least clue as to the nature of the book or the author. It is a small, hardcover copy of Anthony Trollope’s The Small House at Allington. Like Pride & Prejudice, or Sense & Sensibility, Trollope’s The Small House at Allington is a love story, and what could perhaps be called a book of manners. In it, young women of great character and personal worth who are, of course, two rungs above destitute–in the Austen-ian, English-gentility sense of the word, by which I mean young ladies who do not employ their own carriage, who have no more than two or three servants in their household, who rarely host dinner parties, do not vacation regularly at the seaside or on the continent, and who must accept the generosity of richer [read: male] relatives in order to live on a level that will give them a chance to marry, as it is often put, “above their means” and hopefully not below their moral character–anyways, in it, such young women navigate the world of courtship and love via a series of victories and calamities that will, one can be relatively sure, end in marriage.

One reason it’s an excellent book to have on this trip is that the narrator is of the chatty, confiding and first-person variety that speaks directly to the reader and who often employs a sweeping, all-inclusive “we,” and as I’ve been rather lacking for conversation partners, it’s nice to imagine someone is actually talking to me. I’ll give you just a taste of a passage from the middle of the book:

“Young men, very young men,–men so young that it may be almost a question whether or not they have as yet reached their manhood,–are more inclined to be earnest and thoughtful when alone than they ever are when with others, even though those others be their elders. I fancy that, as we grow old ourselves, we are apt to forget that it was so with us; and forgetting it, we do not believe that it is so with our children. We constantly talk of the thoughtlessness of youth. I do not know whether we might not more appropriately speak of its thoughtfulness…And thus John Eames was thoughtful. they who knew him best accounted him to be a gay, good-hearted, somewhat reckless young man…But, above all things, they would have called him thoughtless. In so calling him, they judged him wrongly. He was ever thinking–thinking much of the world as it appeared to him, and of himself as he appeared to the world; and thinking, also, of things beyond the world. What was to be his fate here and hereafter? Lily Dale was gone from him, and Amelia Roper was hanging round his neck like a millstone! What, under such circumstances, was to be his fate here and hereafter?”

I particularly like the sentence “In so calling him, they judged him wrongly.” Isn’t that lovely? There is no need for me to decide for myself whether or not John Eames, one of the heroes of the story, is in fact thoughtful: I know he is. I have been told so, by a reliable narrator, a narrator who I can trust is a great deal wiser than I am, especially when it comes to the facts of his story.

I’ve always found that books can act like some sort of portable environment, in a way that goes well beyond just the worlds described within their pages. Though books can’t change your physical surroundings, they can change your mental and emotional surroundings: if you’re anxious, books can make you calm, if you’re feeling stagnant, reading can reinvigorate you, if your thoughts are scattered, the right book can focus them; if your thoughts are too narrow, reading can reopen your mind to the world. If it weren’t for reading, I think I’d probably have started a vigorous course of anti-depressants around age 16. And I’m sure there are some people who (not without reason) feel I should have done so anyways. But in any case, I think sometimes it is too easy to take for granted the power that good writing has of being able to transport its readers into another place or time, into another mind or even another body. The power of books to distract, or more accurately than that, the power that exists somehow between reader and book which allows the reader to let what she’s reading truly exist, is amazing, really, when you think about it (or at least, it is to me, when I think about it).

Hanging in a room of the Jane Austen Center in Bath, England, is a letter from the actress Emma Thompson (written after she starred as Elinor Dashwood in Ang Lee’s film version of Sense & Sensibility); in a postscript, (why does it seem so natural that Emma Thompson is very eloquent, has charming, lived-in penmanship, and writes lengthy, witty postscripts?) Thompson writes that perhaps her favorite thing about Austen’s writing is that every time she returns to it, she discovers herself in love with something new: as a young woman, she was swept away by the romance; later she found herself sympathizing with Mrs. Bates, and in the future, she expects, like Mr. Wodehouse, to become overly attached to her porridge. I think that what Thompson wrote about Austen is a lovely way of describing one of the central joys of rereading–the joy of discovering new depths to familiar ground. But I also think there’s  something remarkable about being able to return to a book and find it, at its core, unchanged, to find it still as magical (in whatever particular direction its magic lies) as ever.

Working on this post, I’ve been struggling to write more than just a description of a particular book that makes me feel better. I’ve been trying, rather awkwardly, to get at what it is about books (certain books) that enables them to make people feel better, the power that books have that enables them to make people feel, at all. I marvel at the ability of writers to create in their work such fully realizable fictions–to create worlds in which their readers can believe. On the surface, that books can do this seems quite simple and understandable; indeed in many ways it is this power that we expect from books, or at least from (good) books of fiction. In the early 19th century, Coleridge wrote about the willing suspension of disbelief as the key to a reader’s acceptance of the truth of fiction or drama, particularly fiction fashioned out of the fantastic or unreal. Inherent in Coleridge’s language about the mechanism of the willing suspension of disbelief is the relatively simple idea that reading fiction involves an act of belief as well: as much as one must be willing to suspend disbelief, one must also be willing to believe. The two things work together, if not as one. And of course, worlds like the ones Austen creates are comforting to believe in, because the parameters are clearly defined. They contain little of the fantastic, the bizarre, the obviously unreal (though perhaps more of the obviously unreal now than they did during the time period in which they were written and published). The old may die, the young may be foolish, and some people will be poor, others ill, and others wicked; but the layers will separate out in the end, leaving everyone in their proper place, no matter how grim it may have looked in the novel’s darkest hour (and of course, Austen’s darkest hour is like a light-hearted frolic in Dostoyevsky-land).

And so to believe in these books is a calming experience, and not just, I think, because the worlds these book contain are comfortable ones, but because something about belief–about the act of believing–is comforting in and of itself. Other books, equally great if not even better books, choose to make the act of believing hard. They draw attention to the pact of faith between book and reader, they riddle trust with doubts, they point out their own fictitiousness and hold it up to the reader like a mirror. But familiar books, books like The Small House at Allington or Persuasion, choose to make believing easy. I think that’s a great and admirable thing for a book to do, because believing–in an idea, or in another person, or even in oneself–can be quite hard. And so to return to an old book, one you’ve read before, and find that you still believe in it just as much as you ever did, is a reflection not only that something at the core of the book has remained the same, but also that something within you, the reader,  is the same as well. And in a world that changes as rapidly as ours does, it’s comforting to know, or at the very least, to believe (and what is the difference between knowing and believing?) that some things–some very important, if indescribable things–stay the same.


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