Booked for Travel
How going places leads to the printed page.
Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By THOMAS SWICK
When, in November, I arrived in Magome after 10 days walking the Kiso Road, it had the feel of a pilgrimage site. The town, including the author’s childhood home, had been destroyed by a fire and then rebuilt, but it still possessed the solemn air of a place that had been captured and validated by words. Though only, of course, to those who’d read them.
This is the other beauty, apart from edification, of reading about the places you visit: They take on added meaning. You can drive to Archer City, Texas—even with Larry McMurtry’s bookstore as your lodestar—but unless you’ve read The Last Picture Show you won’t get the proper emotional jolt. Palermo, Sicily, when I arrived there, was not just Palermo, but a city haunted by princes and lackeys.
Reading can also help the traveler connect with people, especially abroad, where writers often enjoy a greater status than they do in America. A few years ago, in Turin, I mentioned to a woman that I’d been reading Primo Levi. She replied that a picture of her as a young girl appears in Ian Thomson’s biography of him. (Her father, a journalist, had been good friends with the writer, and they occasionally went on family outings together.) When I meet a Dutchman, I inevitably bring up the name Cees Nooteboom (literature as a lingua franca!), and I can’t find myself in the company of a Swiss without asking about Nicolas Bouvier.
Bouvier’s The Japanese Chronicles was my reward for finishing Before the Dawn. I tend to save travel books for last, not just because I often find them more enjoyable than novels—business before even-more-pleasurable business—but because of their inherent complementary nature. The findings of an outsider, no matter how artful, are gravy on the meat of a native’s masterworks. But what rich gravy! Eating freshly cut seaweed, Bouvier tastes “salt, iodine, hints of a school of anchovies or the oily wake of a cargo ship.” Of the Japanese character he writes: “Here, anyone who doesn’t serve an apprenticeship to frugality is definitely wasting his time.” This line ran through my head night after night on the Kiso Road, as I slept on cold floors in unheated inns. And, in a way, it made the experience more tolerable, for it elevated my modest suffering to a cultural act.
Before leaving for Sicily, and after finishing The Leopard, I ordered The Honoured Society: The Sicilian Mafia Observed by Norman Lewis, another great travel writer hard to find at chain bookstores. The book arrived in a white envelope and had a design identical to that of The Japanese Chronicles: a black-and-white photograph taking up most of the cover and the name of the publisher (Eland) running vertically at the top. Opening it up, I saw that it was dedicated to S. J. Perelman. Books, like journeys, are full of surprises.
Thomas Swick is the author, most recently, of A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler.