I am a voracious reader. You don’t have to take my word for it – I keep a list of every book I read, so you can decide for yourself: In 2008, I read a total of 41 books; in 2007, a meaningful 42. So far, 2009 has been a big year – I have already read 45 books. Voracious? I would say so. As a traveller, being a voracious reader can be quite hard work. I obviously can’t afford to buy books. Instead I exchange them, sometimes with other travellers, but more often at Book Exchanges – which are found in Hostels, Book Stores, Cafés and occasionally, even Dive Shops.
Frequently, my first mission in any new town is to locate my next book. I could write a Guide Book on books, and how to locate them. Sometimes I am lucky and find excellent Book Exchanges with an abundance of interesting and intriguing titles to choose from. Sometimes I seem to be following in the footsteps of peasants, and I end up with nothing but light romance and ‘Airport Blockbusters’.
However, when it comes to the crunch, I would rather read anything, than nothing, so sometimes I read truly terrible books. Low points this year have included ‘Wedding Season’ by Darcy Cooper (the heroine cancelled her own – did I care? Hell no) and the entirely unmemorable ‘False Memory’ by Dean Koontz (I have no memory of what it was about – but it’s on the list, so I must have read it.) Although, the fact that I will read anything does also lead me to some good books which I probably wouldn’t have chosen: ‘Killing Pablo’ by Mark Bowden, which was about the pursuit of Pablo Escobar, was a surprisingly good read. ‘Reminiscences of the Cuban War’ by that well-known, homicidal nutcase, Che Guevara, insured I would never, ever be tempted to wear one of those naff t-shirts adorned with his face. And I would strongly advise anyone who owns one of those t-shirts to read this memoir and see if you can justify the many senseless murders he proudly confesses to.
A few years ago, in the absence of anything better, I read a book called 'Chasing Copernicus' by a bloke who was tracking down all the ‘First Editions’ of Copernicus’s masterwork, ‘On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres’, and trying to establish if anyone had actually read it! It seems Isaac Newton wrote notes in the margin of his copy (at Cambridge) – so he did his homework. But the author found several copies in which the pages had yet to be cut! His conclusion was that ‘Revolutions’, although containing an incredibly exciting theorem, is actually a work of staggering monotony which almost no one has read – preferring instead to get the gist of it from Isaac Newton or other, more available, science geeks at dinner parties. Sadly the same could be said of his own book.
But, in the wonderful world of literature, there are always more high points than low. This year’s notable highlights have included ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’ by Milan Kundera (if I ever am able to complete a novel, I would like it to be just like this one); ‘We Were The Mulvaneys’ by Joyce Carol Oates and ‘Daughter of Fortune’ by Isabel Allende. All wonderful.
I never look for ‘Classics’ (by ‘classic’, I mean a timeless works of genius, rather than a book that necessarily belongs to the canon of literature – although the two are often the same) because I had an insight at University, which terrified me. In my second year, as instructed, I dutifully read all (truthfully? Ok, most) of Shakespeare’s Plays*, but it was only when I had finished them that I realised, with profound sadness, that I will never again, in my life, read a Shakespeare Play for the first time (unless someone finds 'Cardenio' – you never know...).
It occurred to me then, that if I kept devouring the Classics at my usual pace, then it was possible that by the time I was 60 or so, I might have read them all! “The horror! The horror!” And then what would I do until I died? Of course, new Classics will always be written. And they are joyous because you often don’t know they’re a work incomparable greatness until you finish them. That is a different experience (most recently ‘Never Let Me Go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro was a unexpected pleasure). But nothing can compare to that thrill, the excitement, the relish of sitting down and opening the first page of ‘Anna Karenina’ or ‘Don Quixote’ and knowing you are about to bring a sublime creation into your mind.
So I made a decision – that I would never actively look for these great books. Instead, I would patiently wait for them. I know that sooner or later they will all cross my path – and I will read them, when I am meant to read them, during the course of my life.
Despite knowing without any doubt, that it would inevitably become one of my most beloved books – I managed to restrain myself from reading ‘Lord of the Rings’ until I was 26. And then, even as I read it, and delighted at every twist and turn in the story, I also felt that inescapable sadness that I would never be delighted in this way, by this story, ever again.
I waited years before stumbling across ‘War and Peace’, and nearly cracked and bought it so many times. But in the end it was here, in Antigua, six years ago, that I came across it in a Café. I read it whilst visiting Lago Atitlan, in the shadow of a volcano.
This morning, I noticed a single shelf of dusty old paperbacks in the corridor of my hostel. Out of habit, I glanced over, although I am still halfway through my current read... and there it was, patiently waiting for me – tatty, battered, but still in one piece – ‘The Iliad’.
I am very excited! This week I am mostly going to the dentist (a fitting end to a truly crap summer) and The Iliad seems to me to be an appropriate accompaniment!
* Except for five, which I started, but couldn’t finish because, they were tedious! Don’t make that face! He wrote 36 Plays; you can’t seriously expect them all to be brilliant!
6 days ago