The Magazine

Have Book, Will Travel

The author is sold, along with the text.

Feb 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 23 • By THOMAS SWICK
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Once again I went last, after another dramatic reading, this one by a young Hispanic woman who used not just her voice but her body to evoke a night of rumba in Havana. After she sat down, and the other Texan read--about the founder of a sailing ship company--I pulled out a newspaper column I'd written, inspired by recent campaign speeches. (The book fair took place one week before the presidential election.)

"My fellow Americans, as your next president I will ensure that every working man and woman receives one month of vacation a year."

Applause rang through the chamber.

"I will approve discounts on Prozac for flight attendants.

"I will make any hotel with attitude host a weekly Rotary Club luncheon.

"I will convince the manufacturers of suitcases to come up with a new black.

"I will pass through Congress a bill mandating that any passengers who fail to fit their carry-on bags into the overhead compartment on the first try must turn said bags over to a flight attendant and, before landing, write letters of apology to all the people seated in rows higher than their own."

The vote in the House was clear: I had carried Texas.

In Chicago, I met the professor of Buddhism in the authors' lounge. I had envisioned a man who brought a bemused detachment to the huzza of the marketplace, so I was relieved when he seemed as concerned about sales and publicity as I was. We were taken to a small classroom where about 20 people sat. This time I read first, from my chapter on Comiskey Park, and then the professor read about Cambodia--two subjects that quite possibly had never been paired.

And probably never should be again. Afterwards, I signed three books and then looked on as the line, made up almost entirely of comely young women, grew in front of the professor's table. The majority of readers are female, of course, just as the majority of sports fans are male. (The percentage of women at a ball game is no doubt comparable to the percentage of men at a book fair.) The fact that I was in Chicago was no excuse for my choice of reading; people don't want to be transported to the homegrown. And as a meaningful way of life, Buddhism will always surpass support for the White Sox.

For ten long minutes I not only encountered apathy, I also watched its opposite turn its perfumed back to me. Panels. Then I remembered that I was a travel writer and I did what travel writers do: I left. I walked out of the book fair, picked up my rental car, and pointed it towards Iowa.

I was looking forward to my first trip to the state since 1992. That also was an election year, and as in every election year, commentators were talking about the heartland. I had never been to the heartland. I flew to Des Moines, rented a car, and discovered a miscellany of intimate Americana: the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, where Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper gave their last performance; the National Hobo Convention in nearby Britt; the "Field of Dreams" in Dyersville; the limestone buildings of Grant Wood's old artists' colony in Stone City--everything connected by rolling fields of tall green corn. I thought of all the people who had said "Huh?" when I had told them where I was going next. Iowa taught me a valuable lesson of travel, or at least travel writing: Often, the less glamorous the destination, the more rewarding the journey.

The sun disappeared as Copland's "Red Pony" played on the radio. Just across the Mississippi a Super 8 Motel sign pierced the gloaming. I dropped my bags in my room and headed into Le Claire. A 1923 Rolls-Royce sat in front of Sneaky Pete's.

"That's my car," said one of the two men sitting at the bar. "A Silver Ghost." He and his friend had left New Hampshire and were on their way to Montana for a little fly-fishing. In 2007, he said, they were going to ship the car to China and then drive it in the Beijing-Paris rally.

Hundreds of neckties hung from the ceiling of the dining room. "We cut them off customers," the bartender told me, before mentioning that Buffalo Bill Cody had been born in Le Claire (somehow I had missed the town on that first trip). Minutes later he brought me my buffalo burger, which I washed down with a glass jar of beer.

"Where you staying?" he asked. "Out at the Super 8? That's too bad. I've got a B&B," and he handed me a card for the Hog Heaven Bed & Breakfast. And I sat there struck (once again) by the limitless riches of the road--in 15 minutes I had found four travel stories, that of a biker B&B being almost as marvelous as that of the future Eurasian road racers--and also by the brute similarities between the lodging and the publishing industries. The franchises--Super 8, David Sedaris--get prominent placement along the highway and just inside the door (and with it ever-increasing business), while the little guys--the B&Bs and midlist authors (while often charming, and full of personality)--fight a losing battle tucked away on side streets and back shelves where they are invisible to all except those who specifically seek them out. That night I cut my ties with the chain motels.

In Iowa City, I found a handsome bed and breakfast in the middle of a leafy academic street. Though it was a good walk from the university, you could still imagine professors heading off in the morning to disseminate knowledge. A visiting professor of mathematics, in fact, occupied the room next to mine. In the morning we were joined at table by an innkeeping couple from Minneapolis. And in that easy familiarity of boarding house breakfasts, they asked about me. B&Bs, it was clear, give go-it-alone book tour authors not only a warm feeling of solidarity but also an excellent opportunity for self-promotion. Front and center once again. And many people, moved either by a brush with celebrity or a bout of sympathy, will buy a book if they've met the author. At least they say they will.

A sign in the upstairs café at Prairie Lights (independent booksellers get the same professional courtesy as B&Bs) informs customers that they are on the site of the old literary society, The Times Club, that brought Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, e.e. cummings, Langston Hughes, and Sherwood Anderson to town. Black-and-white photographs of them and others decorate the walls. Downstairs, Paul Ingram talks books like the one-man literary society he is.

My reading was hosted by a local radio personality and carried live on WSUI. (As are all readings at Prairie Lights, giving them an unexpected air of import.) About 50 people filled the chairs, while a blessed handful stood in the back. Thanks be to college towns with famous writers' workshops. Ignoring the lessons of Chicago, I read about Iowa, though I ended with some helpful travel advice for runaway brides (inspired by the memory of a town that embraces drifters) and a soliloquy on the beauty of unsung places. When the hour-long program was over, a number of people came up to chat (it was me or nothing). One was a boy, no older than 14, who gave me my book to be signed and then, just as endearingly, his hand to be shaken.

The next morning I stopped in Anamosa to visit Grant Wood's grave, leaving a postcard of my book with the woman in the Chamber of Commerce office. (After verifying that I had correctly identified in it his final resting place.) That night's reading in Dubuque was turned into a signing as the space before the microphone remained dishearteningly vacant. Friendly staff made like a grounds crew and swiftly moved my table out of the café and into the center aisle.

An author at a signing is like a picture at an exhibition--passively open to public scrutiny, ridicule, approval, dismissal, avoidance. The difference being, of course, that the author perceives and registers (or, frequently, tries not to register) the reactions she inspires. But sometimes he is simply an information source for a customer looking for the latest Palahniuk.

Our culture has no accepted etiquette for dealing with writers sitting alone with their books. People bring to the experience, even in large cities, no helpful guidelines or learned behaviors. Which is why I remember with such awe and affection the young woman in Dubuque.

She walked by, trailing her husband and two children.

"So, you're an author?" she said, slowing her pace but not coming to a stop.

"Yes," I said.

"Congratulations."

Thomas Swick, travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, is the author, most recently, of A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler.