“Life does not consist mainly, or even largely, of facts or happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever flowing through one’s head.”
– Mark Twain
In my life books and travel have always been inextricably linked, so much so that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Like length and width, they seem to be two essential aspects of the same thing.
Before I had traveled much beyond my neighborhood, books were my vehicles for traveling in the imagination. When I did get to really travel, the experience was molded to some extent by what I had read in books.
Movies and TV shows also provide fuel for the imagination. But books are more intimate. Movies show a story as it appears from the outside. Books give you the experience from the inside.
Many of my favorite books growing up were about travel, like “Huckleberry Finn” or “Treasure Island.” But even when the story takes place in a single location, a book takes you there. So I was still traveling.
Reading about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn ignited in me a passion to go traveling and exploring. The adventures of Mark Twain’s boy heroes were irresistible.
I emulated them, reliving their stories in my own environment with rafts and rope swings at the creek. I behaved and dressed like them, or imagined that I did. I didn’t just read those books once. I dug back into them again and again. I wanted to live in them. Now looking back I realize that what stuck with me most from them was the thrill of travel.
Whenever a book had travel as a main theme I was drawn to it, like John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley,” Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” or Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad.” But there was always an element of travel. Reading itself was traveling.
When my father’s tattered volume of “Tarzan of the Apes” fell into my hands, it took me to Africa in my imagination. It was not the real Africa. It was the Africa of the imagination of Edgar Rice Burroughs, an American who had never been to Africa and drew most of what he knew about Africa from a single book he had read.
For Burroughs Africa was more symbolic than real. It was a mythical setting for his legendary hero. That was my Africa too, until I went there myself. What I experienced there had little in common with the Africa of the Tarzan story. But the inner experience of the struggle to survive in the primal jungle was still valid in its own way. It still resonates in its own space.
When I was a teenager I discovered James Bond and read through most of the series. I identified with him because of course Bond was the coolest guy around.
When I became an adult I realized that I had little in common with Bond, the handsome spy who draws women like a magnet, fights and performs acrobatic feats without wrinkling his tux, and uses his license to kill without remorse. The only part of those books that stayed relevant to my life was the joy of travel.
That same spirit still animates me today as an aging baby boomer. In that sense I never grew up. And I’m not sorry about that. Every trip still rewards me as much today as it did at the beginning. And every trip I ever took, like every book, stays with me forever.
As Mark Twain said, much of our experience of life consists of our own thoughts. Remember the rhyme “life is but a dream”? Well, there is some truth to that. Wherever we are physically, we spend much of our time in reverie or daydream, abstracted from our physical surroundings.
We all reside in our inner worlds among symbols and images we have absorbed throughout our lives. We perceive the world through the windows of our senses through lenses shaped by experience. We are so immersed in our own personal viewpoints it is hard to fully appreciate how much our inner world influences what we see or experience.
What you see in a foreign country is often nothing like what you have seen in travel brochures. I have seen parts of Africa that looked undistinguishable from places in the American Midwest. And I wondered, if I had just woken up and found myself here would I know where I am from what I am seeing? Much of my sense of place is based on what I think about where I am.
When a trip is over, the memories of the book I was reading are wrapped up in the memories of the trip. Each book creates a new space in your mind, a place you can go as you read the book, and can return to in your imagination later. Each trip does the same thing.
The choice of book to bring on a trip is an important one. A book is an intimate traveling companion, and you must be selective, just as you are with choosing a human traveling companion.
It has to be a friend you can enjoy spending long periods of time with. I once took a travelogue of China on a trip to China and after 50 pages I had to put it down because the author was so sour he cast a negative light on everything. I didn’t want his bad mood to bleed over into my trip.
If I like my book, whatever hours I spend in airports will not be boredom, but will be opportunities to dig into my book. I like to bring something that is connected to the place I’m traveling, such as a history, biography or a novel set there. If I read something related to the travel itinerary, it amplifies the experience, deepens the immersion.
But it’s also fun to read something that has little connection to where you are visiting. You can escape into your book at night when you are unwinding after a head-spinning day of touring, to refresh yourself in preparation for the next day.
One of the pleasures for traveling book lovers is going into book shops and maybe finding a special book that will always recall that time and place. As a souvenir a book is not only what it looks and feels like, it also has its inner dimension, a world within. That is a dimension a pair of shoes, for example, does not have.
Reading about your destination before or after your trip extends and enriches the experience. A lot of the fun of a trip is thinking about it before you go and after you come home. The actual experience of a place will be made more vivid and tangible by what you read. And what you read will deepen your understanding of what you experience.
When I look back on my life it looks as though my early travels in books were a natural preparation for travel in the world. It’s as if the bookworm came out of its chrysalis reborn with wings as a travel butterfly.
Travel extends life, maybe not in years, but in depth, in the sense of penetrating each moment. If you travel you may not live more years, but you will live your years more deeply, more fully. And in the end that may be a truer measure of life.
With that, I bid you farewell and wish you well. Happy travels! And take a good book.
Your humble reporter,
A. Colin Treadwell