You read differently when you travel. You have to. Thousands of miles from lavish new-release pyramids and familiar specialty sections, you learn to take what you can get. MFA types will find themselves all alone with a biography of Churchill; Civil War history buffs will end up in a strange bed with White Teeth. I'm always surprised that this aspect of being on the road is so little discussed, because it's what you do with the solitude of travel that matters. And what we usually do with the solitude is we read.
The farther off the beaten path you wander, and the longer you stay there, the more your reading habits stray. It doesn't take long to acquire a taste for what's available. Just as the incarcerated hash mule will come to appreciate certain previously unknown pleasures of Turkish prison life, the reading traveler will awake to the joys of stumbling across, say, a battered copy of James Michener's epic of Eastern European nationhood, Poland. After a month off the English-speaking grid, even Harold Bloom will come to see that yellowing Irvine Welsh novel with 14 pages missing as a cut emerald, awaiting rescue from a bony hostel library where it sits between a French edition of The Name of the Rose and a 1993 travel guide in Hebrew.
For the past two months, I've been winding a lazy path through central and southern India, dependent for reading material on street bookstalls, guesthouse left-behinds and bookstores with an English shelf or two amid books in Hindi and local dialects.
The Indian bookshops with English sections generally have dense little pockets of Penguin's "Popular Classics" -- Twain, Tolstoy and Bronte, wrapped in that dull beige jacket -- but the same 20 or so titles pop up in every shop, usually next to the same five books by those lions of the Indian Diaspora, Rushdie and Naipaul.
It's a pantheon that gets old fast.
The street stalls offer a higher likelihood of a nugget of gold -- Harry Truman's memoirs, dog-eared '50s pulp erotica -- but just as often, you'll sift through hundreds of dated and endearingly titled American textbooks -- The Informatics Revolution and You -- only to come up with a fourth-edition copy of John Naisbitt's Mega Trends.
It was out of this barren bookscape that I recently rambled into Pondicherry, a small city on the eastern side of India's southern cone. According to Lonely Planet, there were two local bookstores awaiting me with strong English language sections. But one of the shops stocked only dry local history and vapid guru hagiography; the other was better but expensive, and was all popular classics and Rushdie. (And Puzo. There is enough Mario Puzo in India to fill the main Amazon.com warehouse three times over.)
Walking out of this second shop, I saw a sign across the street through the afternoon rain: BOOK FAIR. During my approach, I half expected the vision to disappear, to prove a mirage. But it was real. A banner hung over the entrance to a church-sized, weather-beaten colonial-era building, announcing: BOOKS, BOOKS, BOOKS. A sign next to the huge front door read:
BOOKS SUPERSALE -- SURPLUS FROM AMERICAN LIBRARIES -- IRRESISTABLE PRICES -- OVER 50,000 TITLES
I rubbed my eyes, swallowed, and asked a kid sitting at a desk the meaning of this. He pointed to another sign. An Indian company called Bounty Book Distributors, it seemed, had done the impossible and transported an enormous English-language used bookstore to my little corner of travel-reading hell. Had they used military cargo aircraft? By what economic calculus did it make sense to transport a giant library across the world and deposit it in a small city where the most common language is Tamil and the expatriate community consists of a few hundred French hippies? Was this considered humanitarian aid?
More like an act of war.
The space was the size of a basketball court, lined with foldout tables packed with books. I counted my blessings and started at the beginning. It was all airport bookstore drek, in hardback and soft: Grisham, Steele, Clancy, Roberts, Puzo...
To be expected, I thought, and moved on to the next table, which was perpendicular to the first and ran the entire length of the hall. Surely the good stuff was about to start jumping out. The rows began with edition after edition of a Reader's Digest series called "Condensed Books," in which the magazine's editors present abbreviated works of popular fiction between faux-leather covers. I slowly dragged a forefinger across the table as I walked, waiting for Condensed Books to give way to something else. I sped into a slow jog and almost ran into the wall, thousands of Condensed Books later.
I turned to face the opposite table, which ran all the way back to the front of the hall. Opposite the Condensed Books was the biggest collection of romance fiction ever assembled. Harlequin's Superromances were there in quadruplicate, as were numbers from the imprint's slightly steamier Intrigue series. Easily a ton of romance pulp just waiting for hydraulic justice. The titles, four rows deep, stacked six high, were endless: Passion's Vine, The Gentle Baron, Rachel and the M.D., All Men Are Rogues...
I started to panic. The next row offered '70s and '80s pop-spirituality. Typical of this pack was a 1972 rainbow-bedecked paperback of Frances Gardner Huhnter's Hang Loose With Jesus. The one interesting nugget was an old copy of Paul Tillich's The Eternal Now. Flipping through the pages, I stumbled upon the following passage, which could have been written with the scene around me in mind:
Someday we shall be forgotten...The anxiety that one will die is the anxiety that one will be forgotten...A powerful symbol of being forgotten is being buried. Burial means removal from the realm of awareness, a removal from the surface of the earth.
Or, if you're an author, removal from the library. All around me were the buried, the forgotten. After the library giveaways and yard sales, this is where bad books end up -- in southern India, picked and prodded by a few travelers and local university students.
After my first frenzied pass through the 50,000-volume collection -- through countless textbooks on West Germany, Applied Graph Theory, the Canadian Economy; through Guides to Telephone Electronics, Your New Microwave, Your New Food Processor; through huge front-cover author photos of Regis, Rush and co.; through Chicken Soup for every kind of soul and a Norman Vincent Peale book for each month of the year; through illustrated movie-books of Max Headroom, The Empire Strikes Back and Annie -- after it became a best-selling blur, I sat down on the wet front steps of the building, wondering how so much promise could deliver so little. It seemed a cruel joke by whichever Indian god is responsible for tourism.
But I had mined enough bookstores to know collections are rarely as bad as they often seem on first pass. The same proved true of this one, if only just. I went back in and combed through the stacks again, slowly and with often painful care. Three hours later, I walked out with a decent, if tiny, catch. For 150 Rupees ($3), I had acquired: a volume on Renaissance diplomacy by a mid-century Columbia scholar named Garrett Mattingly; Carl Sagan's pop-science classic, Cosmos, and Charles Bukowski's novel of boyhood, Ham on Rye.
It's not the trio I would have collected at a similarly sized bookstore back in New York, but that's the point of travel -- to outrun your habits and luxuries, to see and think and read anew. Assuming, that is, that you can find a decent book.