This week, my last in Europe, I spent a few days in London where, per the recommendation of a lovely and knowledgeable friend, I visited Daunt Books for Travellers, a fantastic bookshop on Marylebone High Street. If you’d like to visit without shelling out for airfare, you can take a virtual tour of the shop at their website, http://www.dauntbooks.co.uk/.
I spent a happy hour and fifteen minutes there before leaving with several gifts for friends, a new Daunt Books linen bag (free, with a 20£ purchase, so essentially impossible for me to have left without one) and a slim volume of poetry called Endpoint and Other Poems, the last collection of poems by American writer John Updike, who passed away in January of 2009. While on the Eurostar back to Paris, I read the whole collection, which included this sonnet, called “Evening Concert, Sainte-Chapelle”:
Evening Concert, Sainte-Chapelle
The celebrated windows flamed with light
directly pouring north across the Seine;
we rustled into place. Then violins
vaunting Vivaldi’s strident strength, then Brahms,
seemed to suck with their passionate sweetness,
bit by bit, the vigor from the red,
the blazing blue, so that the listening eye
saw suddenly the thick black lines, in shapes
of shield and cross and strut and brace, that held
the holy glowing fantasy together.
The music surged; the glow became a milk,
a whisper to the eye, a glimmer ebbed
until our beating hearts, our violins
were cased in thin but solid sheets of lead.
~ John Updike
The poem struck me the first time I read it with the power of its imagery, the fantastic mixture of senses, the rhythm and forceful, corporeal precision of its observations. Today, after waiting in a tremendously long queue, I visited Sainte-Chapelle, on l‘île de la Cité, and just by chance happened to have Updike’s book with me in my bag. Remembering the sonnet, I pulled it out and read it again, beneath the fantastic vitreaux he is writing about, surrounded at some moments by shush-induced silence, at others by rising voices and laughter.
I think this is a great sonnet. Sainte-Chapelle is truly gorgeous and Updike masterfully integrates the visual experience of the stained-glass windows with the aural experience of music. He captures the power and weight of the vitreaux’s structure and the many black bars of lead which hold the thousands of panes of glass in place, and melds this with the simultaneous flow and structure of music, and the sheets of the black bars and notes which underlie the glorious sounds of Vivaldi and Brahms. Within the sonnet, all this melts together into a singular, magnificent and nearly frightening sensual experience, evoking both the grandeur and the limitations of the soul. But I wax unduly poetic where the poem–and the vitreaux–speak better for themselves. Enough from me! Bonne Nuit.
Per my own recommendation, as part of my celebration of National Poetry Month, I went to one of the Parisian Anglophone bookstores (this one, The Village Voice) to buy a book of poetry, and at the end of the day I wound up, of course, with not just one book, but three, and a lust for several more. I was looking for a collection of poems by Robert Browning, which I didn’t find, but I ended up coming away with a newly released edition of Selected Poems by H.D., edited by Louis L. Martz, and a slim volume of poems by Robert (“Bobby”) Burns, titled Poems and Songs. I also very nearly bought myself Anne Carson’s new translation of the works of Sappho, called If Not, Winter, and my resolve not to buy every book ever was also sorely tempted by Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, by Judith Kroll.
And it obviously goes without saying there were numerous other near-buys as well, since I had to walk upstairs to find the shelves of poetry, past tables of newly released fiction and non-fiction.
After I left The Village Voice with my H.D. and my Burns I walked resolutely homeward, through Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and past Boulevard Saint Michel. I was following the left bank of the Seine eastwards, just across from Notre Dame, when it began to ran, and being coat-less and sans parapluie, I shoved my newly purchased books into my bag and ducked into a nearby shop which just happened to be the perennially-crowded but lovely Shakespeare And Company Bookstore, on Rue de la Bûcherie.
Showing what I believe to have been an astounding amount of self-control, I managed to only buy one book at Shakespeare & Co.: this one,
The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within, by Stephen Fry, the British author-actor-poet-comedian whose novel, The Hippopotamus, I wrote about earlier this year.
I’ve loved poetry for as long as I can remember, but to be truthful, despite several classes both in high school and college and a lot of reading on my own, I’ve always felt that I was on the outside of the art, both as a practitioner and an admirer. I never learned the lingo, my scansion’s always been awful and my knowledge of poetic forms, despite considerable effort, mediocre at best. Like most arts or disciplines which spawn an erudite elite, poetry comes with a history and vocabulary and structure which is can be either daunting or alluring (or both), depending on what kind of knowledge you most like to pursue.
When it comes to poetry, Fry is clearly in the know – – he’s got the jargon, the references, the sheer abundance of poetry read and poetry thought about that would make him, if not for his crooked nose and his appearances on several of my favorite TV shows, just another member of the poetically-inclined literary elite who’ve always intimidated the hell out of me.
Fry is, in fact, a bit intimidating in his role as author-cum-professor of (amateur) poetry and this book is definitely not for everyone. Here is a simple test designed to see whether this is a book you might possibly want to buy or borrow from a library. Read the following list of terms: scansion, iambs, trochees, Horatian Ode, sprung rhythm, accentual-syllabic verse, Petrarchan sonnet, dactyl. If you have absolutely no desire to know anything about three or more of the these examples of poetic terminology, this is not a book for you. If you’re not interested in learning to write poetry, or if you feel no desire to understand the nuances of the way it works, then again, this book is not for you.
Fry is definitely aware that the subject he’s chosen is a bit intimidating, and the task he’s taking on (“Unlocking the Poet Within) not an easy one. And though he lightens the drudgery of all the spondees and tetrameters with his characteristic dry humor, I think Fry himself would admit that all in all, this is a serious book: a serious book about seriously learning to enjoy poetry, both the reading and the writing of it.
At times Fry strikes me as uncomfortably dogmatic, but I honestly think this is just what comes from being “in the know,”–once you’ve put in the effort to learn the terminology and history of an entire artistic genre, you’re likely to become a bit attached to its forms and traditions. I can feel it beginning to happen to myself already, and I’m only in Chapter 3.
The book is laid out in a series of lessons followed by exercises — yes, exercises — meant to engage the reader in practicing all of the poetic forms Fry introduces along the way. This makes for slow reading, as I spent a good deal of time the yesterday constructing non-rhyming iambic couplets with multiple caesura and enjambment (sounds like fun, huh?) on a variety of topics suggested by Fry himself, including: “Precisely What You See and Hear Outside Your Window,” “Precisely What You’d Like To Eat This Minute” and “Precisely What Chores Nag You.” Fry plays fair: for all the exercises he asks the reader to complete, he offers his own examples first (for instance, in response to the prompt 2 iambic pentameter lines about “Precisely What You Hate About Your Body,” Fry offers “Too many chins and such a crooked nose,/ Long flabby legs and rather stupid hair,” which transforms with the addition of caesura and enjambment to “Three flobbing chins are bad, but worse, a bent/ And foolish nose. Long legs, fat thighs, mad hair.”)
Reading over what I’ve written here, I feel like I’ve been harder on this book than I meant to be, because the truth is I’m really enjoying it, both the reading of it and the writing of terrible poetry, something I haven’t allowed myself to do in years. And I, like Fry, believe that poetry is wonderful and fantastic, and that anyone can write it, and find that experience liberating, exhilarating and utterly worthwhile. It’s a bit of conundrum to me that the mantra “Anyone can (and should) write poetry!” goes hand in hand with a syllabus of highly technical literary terminology and several hundred pages of worth of learning to be done, but it’s a conundrum worth overlooking (or even embracing, if you’ve got the enthusiasm) if you, like me, have always wanted to feel more at home within the words of your favorite poets.
If you liked The Ode Less Travelled: I found The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms to be a really helpful book when I first read it in high school and it’s remained a favorite since then. I’d also recommend The Rules of the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse by the poet Mary Oliver (who also wrote a book called The Poetry Handbook which I haven’t read but imagine is quite good as well). I’m hoping to get my hands on a copy of Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, as I’ve heard it’s excellent.
Well, I can no longer use travel as an excuse for tardiness because I’ve been home for two weeks now, and this is the first post I’ve managed to finish. It’s strange to be home, and especially strange to be surrounded by (American) English every where I go. I think I learned a lot on my trip: a lot about traveling, about myself, about the world. But a lot of the information I acquired was terribly specific—train schedules, the how-to-s of foreign produce sections, the words for “sorry” or “excuse me” in nearly every western European or Scandinavian language, jaywalking laws in different European capitals, how to climb into and make the top bunk of a three-tier bed in total darkness—and hardly of any use at all in the States. But while abroad I also learned a great deal about searching out English language books and bookstores in countries where English is (usually) not the first language, and how to do so as inexpensively as possible, and I wanted.
So, while most of my acquired information is relatively unhelpful now—the train schedules, whether to wait for the walk signal in Munich (Yes! Wait!), and how to know you’re buying milk, not strange, milky yogurt etc.—but I like to think some of it could be useful, and so I’m offering here a haphazard compendium of some the best bookstores and literary places I visited on my trip, alongside a few tips for any travelers interested in reading while they journey, or interested in knowing a bit about the literary history of the places they visit—who wrote there, what they wrote, what charming little two room museum has been erected on a street “not far” from where said author actually lived etc.
First things first, before even boarding your transoceanic flight or your Greyhound to the border or what have you, it’s a great idea to read about the places you’re going before you go. Read about a history of the country, even if its just the history of a momentous week or decade, peruse a biography of its most famous resident, or pick up a translation of some of its classic or contemporary fiction or poetry. Whatever floats your boat. Try Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk, or 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, German writer Herta Müller , or (another Nobel prize winner) Polish poet Wisława Szymborska, or any of the scores of other fantastic writers from around the world.
When I happened upon one of my college professors in London, we went to Waterstone’s (sort of a British Barnes & Nobles) so she could search for a particular book written about the Greek Isles, her next destination, and to be truthful, she put me to shame, because I’ve always struggled with the pre-travel research reading. Four years or so ago I struggled through Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation before a trip to Lebanon (it was worth it), and on this trip I’m afraid most of my prior-to-departure reading consisted of the history and culture blurbs in travel guides.
I’m much better at the post-departure reading, and so I less hypocritically recommend that, once you’ve begun your travels, go out of your way to read books that are particularly evocative of a certain city, country or place while you’re there. I read Woolf’s Orlando in London, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room while in Paris, and Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories while, obviously, in Berlin, and I found the books enriched by the cities and the cities by the books. Away from cities, for landscape and atmosphere you could try Frankenstein while traveling by train through Switzerland, or Dracula in Romania…the possibilities are almost endless and I’m sure that if you look hard enough, there’s a book worth reading from any and every place you’re headed.
Now to hurry myself along a bit, I’m going to offer three, specific points of advice:
First, on trading books with other travelers: this can be a great way to both meet people and to get something new to read. However, just be aware that your fellow travelers may be just as disappointed to receive your George Eliot as you are to trade it for their Stephanie Meyer, or vice versa. Not all matches are made in heaven, nor all readers created identical.
Second (and, as you’ll see, also fourth), on reading cheaply when you’re traveling with a low budget and want to sleep and eat as well as read: Most hostels (and some coffee shops) will have a take-one, leave-one book exchange. If you don’t spot one in one of the common areas of your hostel, ask. It might be hidden, or empty or it might not exist, and if the latter is the case, and you have a book to leave, see if you can start one. A future reading traveler will appreciate it! For instance, I found a lone copy of “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” on an unmarked shelf in Berlin, with a post-it reading “Take one, leave one” on the cover. (Turns out Henry’s wives lived long enough to last me through a fever-ridden weekend in Munich, so my thanks to whoever left it!)
Third, visit libraries! They’re a good way to keep up with local, home, and world news without having to pay exorbitant amounts for foreign newspapers or magazines. Also, libraries often have free wi-fi or internet and bulletin boards with flyers for cool local events of both literary and non-literary varities. Also, on a not so related note, if you’re in a big city, it probably has a university, the university probably has bookstores, and at least one of those bookstores probably has books in English (and maybe a quirkly little musuem dedicated to its most famous graduates–go visit philosopher Jeremy Benthem in his auto-icon at University College London).
And fourthly, you’ll notice in my “compendium” below that I haven’t listed any specific bookstores in England or in Germany, not for lack of good candidates but because I bought all of my books in both those countries from charity shops (e.g. Oxfam or Red Cross Association). Surprisingly (to me), most German Oxfams have a good, if eclectic selection of English books (I spotted John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in four Oxfams in four different German cities) and English charity shops often have stellar and quite extensive book selections as well. Books are usually really inexpensively priced (a euro–or a pound—or two as opposed to 12 to 20 euros in a bookshop) and, as a bonus, the money you spend goes to a good cause. Also, if you end your trip in possession of a bunch of books you don’t want to bring home, try to drop them off at one of these shops before you leave (or, if that’s inconvenient or just not your game, leave them on a shelf in your final hostel).
Okay, enough advice. Here’s a list of addresses (and email addresses, where available) of a few of the best bookstores I came across while traveling , and a list of some of the best literary “places” I visited. Bookstores are listed, in no particular order, by city, and experiences are in a snazzy, if slightly overcrowded, Top Five.
Istanbul, Turkey – Robinson Crusoe 389, Istiklal Caddesi 389, Beyoglu, 34433 Istanbul.
Brussels, Belgium – Sterling Books, Wolvengracht 38, 1000 Brussels, Belgium. They call themselves the “English Language Bookstore in the Heart of Brussels,” and true to the name the store is only a few minutes walk from the Grand Place.
Two stories worth of English language books, with good travel and language sections and the inevitable “Penguin Classic” souvenirs (the tea towels, posters, coasters, etc. that you’ll find in nearly every English language bookstore in the UK or on the continent).
Madrid, Spain: Libreria Mujeres, Calle de San Cristóbal 17 28012 Madrid. I can’t manage anything more than the most rudimentary Spanish, but I still loved this bookstore. A few steps from Plaza Mayor, this all-Spanish shop has translations of every great woman writer and feminist you can think of, as well as books by more than a few authors I’d never heard of before.
Paris, France – Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, 37 Rue de la Bûcherie 75005 Paris, France. This bookstore is legendary, located la rive gauche not far from Notre Dame, and well worth a visit. The top floor is full of books that aren’t for sale but that are meant to be read in house, so go cozy up with a biography of George Sand or old copy of the Paris Review, or if you’re in Paris for a while and feeling ambitious, I spotted a copy of Ulysses (first published by
the store’s original proprietor, Sylvia Beach) just waiting to be read. Also, during the week, the store buys used books in English, so if you’re carrying a few too many volumes, trade them for a couple euros or store credit.
Stockholm, Sweden – The English Bookshop, Lilla Nygatan 11 111 28 Stockholm, Sweden. Located in Gamla Stan, the tiny island whose winding, beautiful streets make up Stockholm’s Old Town (the English translation of Gamla Stan) this small all-English bookstore has an eclectic and well-chosen (special exhibitions on the Beats and Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery while I was there) if somewhat limited selection of titles and a friendly, book-savvy staff.
Hedengrens Bokhandel, Stureplan 4, 11485 Stockholm, Sweden. Part of Östermalm’s swanky Sturegallerian shopping district, this bookstore has a huge selection of English books on a variety of subjects and from a variety of scholarly disciplines. The top floor houses entirely Swedish texts, but head down to the basement level for what is, essentially, a big English-language bookshop that’s also home to many books in Italian, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish and Norwegian.
The Science Fiction Bookstore, Västerlånggatan 48, Gamla Stan, Stockholm. If you’re a sci-fi nut or just a casual fan, definitely stop by this store, not far from The English Bookshop in Gamla Stan.
Top Five Literary Places and Experiences:
1. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London, England. Not that there’s any chance this is still a secret, but it will be hard to hide the fact that I’m a complete literary nerd after I admit that far and away the most fun I had on my trip was going to see Shakespeare’s plays performed at the Globe Theatre in London. Only 5 quid for standing room (the best “seats” in the house), it’s probably the cheapest ticket in the city. I saw four shows there in a week and was giddy with happiness before, during and after every one. Reserve tickets ahead of time online, or stop by the box office and try your chances on the day of the show (usually works as long as it isn’t a weekend or the show you’re seeing is in the middle of its run).
If you’re going to stand, get there early–as much as an hour and a half before show time–to queue (you are in England, after all!) for first entrance into the theatre so you can get a spot right at the front of the stage. And if showers are in the forecast, bring a poncho (no umbrellas!) and maybe indulge in some liquid warmth to counter the cold of the rain.
2. Haunting Cafés and Coffeehouses in Paris and Vienna: Viennese Kaffeehäuser and Parisian Cafés are rich with literary history. In Vienna, try Café Central, whose regulars have included Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Sigmund Freud, and Leo Trotsky, or Les Deux Magots, in Paris’s Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which was frequented by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Ernest Hemingway (if you hock a dozen paperback novels at Shakespeare and Company, nearby on la rive gauche, you might be able to afford a glass of wine). Or, on a rainy day, settle into any of the lesser-known but completely lovely cafés or coffeehouses that strike your fancy and enjoy an afternoon of reading and caffeine.
3. Lisbon Poets Hostel, Lisbon, Portugal. Hammocks, bean bags, a suitcase full of books, and rooms named after poets (I stayed in Whitman), the Lisbon Poets Hostel was definitely the best hostel I stayed in for reading and was probably the nicest hostel I stayed in on my trip. This great hostel for reading is located right by a metro stop in what, surprisingly, turned out to be the best city for reading: Lisbon is packed with bookstores, book stalls, and book vendors (and book-filled vending machines, like this one at the train station). Great city, great place to stay.
4. The Nobel Museum, Stockholm, Sweden. Granted, the Nobel Prize in Literature is only one of the five original Nobel Prizes, and only one of the six prizes awarded today (which includes “The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel,” established in 1968), so at this museum, literary greats are far outnumbered by the luminaries of science, medicine, economics, and the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. But it’s actually wonderful to see the accomplishments of the world’s greatest writers in the broader context of creative thinking across the disciplines. Stick around long enough to watch a few of the short films on individual laureates and on the world’s most creative places (it might give you some new ideas about where to travel next).
5. Touring the Bodleian Library, Duke Humfrey’s Library, and Radcliffe Camera, and other literary spots in Oxford, England. This library, probably most easily recognized by most of the world as the Hogwart’s library (parts of the film were shot in the incredibly atmospheric Duke Humfrey’s Library) is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, dating back (in one form or another) more than four centuries. They’ve got a sweet copyright deal that guarantees them a copy of every book printed in the UK or Ireland; but, like everything (well, most things) in Oxford, their resources are only available to students the university, visiting scholars, and other very important people. Someday! Someday.
5.1…The Freud Museum, Vienna, Austria. The rooms where Freud lived with his family and conducted many of his most famous sessions (anyone read Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria?) are on a quiet street not too far from the center of Vienna. The couch isn’t here, as it went with Freud to London in 1938 when he fled the rising force of antisemitism in Austria. But even without the most famous Freudian artifact, the museum is definitely worth a visit if you’re interested in the the father of psychoanalysis.
Other places I liked a lot or recommend as worth visiting: Irish Writer’s Museum, Dublin, Ireland; Jane Austen Center, Bath, England; The Anne Frank House, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Shakespeare’s Birthplace/ Tourist Extravaganza, Stratford-upon-Avon, England; Jungsgarten (dedicated to Astrid Lindgren, author of the Pippi Longstocking series) Stockholm, Sweden; nearly all of London, England; Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris, France.
Lists completed, I guess my final piece of advice, for both reading and travel, is simply to be open-minded. Books can take you into lands every bit as foreign as those airplanes can, and just as new places can change your life irrevocably, new books can do so as well. So follow your instincts, be both careful and courageous, take chances when they feel right, listen, with dedicated attention, both to those around you and to yourself, travel often, and read a lot.