Reading on the Road

Though I’m generally content to live a lifestyle with few possessions and little material impact, the one case where my consumerism becomes rampant is when it comes to books. I can look at a leather sofa and feel not a twinge, at a new car with only the slightest stirrings of avarice, at a fifty-six inch plasma-screen television with no more than placid admiration. Get me on Amazon, though, or lead me through a used bookstore, and twenty minutes later, heart pounding, I’ll find myself the proud owner of a Robert Frost anthology, a collection of Russian folk tales, and a wide-margined volume on the use of game theory in social evolution.

This is one vice which I have no interest in giving up. When I look at a $3000 surround sound system, I think: I could buy 300 books for that amount. A good 2500 if I hit the right places with a suitcase full of cash and a delivery truck.

So when the time comes to pull up stakes and live the life nomadic for a few years, I have a problem. How am I supposed to read on the road, without severely weighing down my pack? What happens if I find a book I want to keep, but am in Mongolia? How, in other words, am I to maintain my library?

The Informal Network of International Bibliophiles

The cheapest option is often also the most interesting. This method requires accepting a certain transience to your books, and having an open mind. Knowing a few extra languages helps, too.

Nearly every traveler you’ll meet will have a paperback or two along, and you’ll meet quite a few who’ve finished what they brought at about the same time you finish what you’re currently reading. Places like hostels can become informal book exchanges, as well as good places to exchange book recommendations.

Other than direct exchanges with other people, there are a number of places that allow book exchanges, sometimes with a small added fees. A number of cafes have books available for exchange (or even free, sometimes). Hostels often have exchange libraries, and many used bookstores will have some kind of exchange system in place. So keep hold of that paperback you just finished — it might come in useful. This was the method I used on my last long(ish) trip, and  the resulting reading list included a story about a walk across Africa, Jose Saramago’s “The Double,” Plutarch’s Lives, Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine,” T.E. Lawrence’s “Revolt in the Desert,” and the autobiography of Sydney Sheldon. Keep in mind that the further you get off the beaten track, the fewer English-language books you’ll be able to find for exchange. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing — I would never have looked twice at Sydney Sheldon’s book, but everything else in my Trabzon hotel was either in Turkish or German. The book was fantastic.

Note for those at home or possessing permanent mailing addresses: the book exchange idea has been catching on among the interwebs, with services like BookMooch supplying access to hundreds of thousands of books via mail exchange around the world.

Buying on Location

If you have no books to trade, buy local! One of my favorite things to do in a new city is explore its used bookstores and other places of book-selling. In certain districts of Istanbul, for example, there are open air covered markets with tables upon tables full of used books, and subway entrances and underpasses in Tbilisi are full of musty old Russian volumes sold from carts for a few coins each. Even if you don’t need a book, a search for bookstores can add an interesting new element to your explorations.

The Electronic Option

I never thought I’d be one for the assorted e-readers that began appearing on the market in the wake of the Amazon Kindle. But, having finally bitten the bullet and bought the new 3G Kindle, I have to say I’m quite impressed. An electronic copy will never hold anywhere near the value of a solid physical volume, in my opinion, but the ability to carry a hundred or so books in a thin, lightweight device is a huge bonus to the traveler. In addition, out-of-print books from Amazon and outside sources like Project Gutenberg are often provided for free (or at least very cheaply), giving you access to thousands of classics at the click of a mouse. The screen’s quite good too, with none of the glare or eye strain normal screens cause, and in a decent cover it shouldn’t attract to much attention. Also useful for the traveler is the fact that the Kindle 3G comes with free data service through local cell towers in upwards of a hundred countries, allowing you to send and receive emails about lodging and the like without access to a WiFi network — quite valuable in an emergency.

So there you have it. Do you have any advice for keeping in your books while traveling?

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  • http://NA Jacob

    Any other thoughts on the kindle? I know the non reflective screen must be really nice, but I wasn’t to impressed with the few domos I have seen so far. It seemed kind of clunky and slow for what it was. I am thinking I might just grab one before my next big trip.

    What do you think? Is it worth dropping a few hundred on a kindle and few dozen books, or would you rather just have a few paperbacks on you at all time?

  • tsraveling

    I did think that about the first generation one, but I like the new ones quite a bit better. If I was only going to be gone for a few months I don’t think I’d bother with it, but for this amount of time (plus having the emergency 3G access) I think it will be useful. I read quite a bit more when I travel — one 12 hr train journey can easily burn a couple of paperbacks, so it’s nice to have backups. I’ll probably still pick up the occasional book, even mail it home if I like it, but so far the Kindle has been worth it.

    Also, sorry for the site fluctuations. I’m trying to settle on a final redesign.

  • Katherina

    How interesting – I hadn’t heard of the first option either. While traveling, I always take my iPad and store my books and guides in it. The only disadvantage I see is that I can’t read it on a beach (it’s too much light for the screen), but I think that’s not a problem with the Kindle.

  • tsraveling

    No, that’s what I like about the Kindle — reads just like a page. Also helps keep your brain in sync before you sleep (computer/iphone/ipad screens before you go to bed makes it harder to fall asleep).

    How do you like the iPad for travel?