El Ateneo theater-converted-to-a-bookstore in Buenos Aries
My interest in reading has ebbed and flowed in the past two decades. During my sophomore year of high school, I read over 100 books, and began to amass a personal library of over 1000 titles, most of which are now sold off. After high school, I began to feel the weight of knowledge in an unhealthy way, so I distanced myself from reading for several years. Later, while studying theology and education, I had to time to read little else than what was required.
After university, I joined the Albina Literary Society, a dedicated group of scholars who meet monthly in NE Portland to discuss literature of all sorts, and who graciously invited Bethany and me to join their rich discussions. It’s delighting to share a text with people I trust; reading in community always enhances my literary experience.
Reading while travelling has been rewarding as well. I’ve had quite a bit of time to read, more than I originally thought. In Argentina for instance, there was nothing better than waking up at 11:00 am (early for an Argentine) strolling down to the local cafe, ordering a coffee, a beer, and an ice bucket, and reading until 2:00 in the afternoon. I was in good company among the other cafe readers. Other times, books helped pass the time on long bus rides, plane trips, and ferries.
Sometimes, I intentionally picked titles that were strongly connected to the place we were visiting. I reread Borges in Buenos Aries. I read “From Beirut to Jerusalem” in Lebanon. And I picked up a biography of Pol Pot in Cambodia.
Other times, I was at the mercy of whatever was available at the local book exchange. Sometimes, I was lucky, like with “The Catcher and the Rye.” Other times, not so much, as with “Prodigal Summer.”
Here, I’m going to share as briefly as possible about some of the books that I read, and what I thought of them in the context of my travels. Enjoy!
This post is dedicated to the Albina Literary Society, and to Professor Domani Pothen, who in one way or another impacted us all.
The Hunger Games Trilogy
by: Suzanne Collins
I promised several people I would read these books before watching the first movie. Sure enough, I started our trip by getting in touch with my inner teenager. Pure entertainment. I learned very little. But I DID learn more about what teenagers go through in school. As one commentator wrote, the books seem to be a metaphor for the brutal, competitive, real-life games young people feel forced to play every day in order to survive adolescence. I tend to agree. Either way, the books are brilliant. I may even have finished all three within 48 hours, start to finish. Recommended
A Short History of Nearly Everything
by: Bill Bryson
I picked this title off of our host Karen’s bookshelf, and I was not disappointed. It answers the big, sweeping questions. Perfect book to read on the road, when the world is expanding at a rate you can’t wrap your head around. It kept me grounded, yet made me more curious about the shared stories of who we are, where we come from, and why we are here. Recommended
The Sword of Submission
by: Dan and Judy Mayhew
This book was gifted to us by our friend Tracy. The authors are from Portland, with a strong connection to my alma mater, which made their stories very fun to read. It’s a fairly complex book about the spiritual power of submission to God. Submission is not a very popular or politically correct word anymore (rightly so as it’s often grounds for spousal abuse instead of love), and I can think of any number of alternative titles to the book that might draw more readers. However, I found it to be one of the most honest books I have read in some time. In terms of travel, it was timely for Bethany and me. Submission to God and each other is a difficult thing on the road, when leading, following, and partnering are daily decisions. Recommended
by: Jorge Borges
country: Argentina (of course)
This collection of Borges’ writing ties me in knots while simultaneously sets me free. He can write the world in a grain of sand, so to speak. In three paragraphs, he can transport the reader to another world, with it’s own rules and ways, while leaving little doubt that the new world is actually a truer version of reality. It felt good to read Borges in Borges’ city, even once in Borges’ favorite cafe. ALS member Margeaux would not only be proud, she would be able to explain most of what this book means. Highly Recommended
Bonus points if you know which Borges this cafe in El Calafate, Argentina is named after
The Gem of the Tabernacle
by: Rev. Hicks
My good friend and fellow ALS member Abe recommended this book to me. I loved it! I’m one of those guys who got burnt out on linear, westernized studies of the Scriptures. This book is much more eastern (after all, isn’t the Bible?), taking into account not only the text but the symbolisim of the Old Testament, and demonstrating it’s relevance and power today (difficult to do). In terms of travel, this book helped me “see beyond the surface” into deeper meanings. Recommended especially for those who grasp the hieroglyphic nature of the Hebrew language, who seek a concrete blueprint for Christian maturity, and for those who believe in the symbolic power of the OT.
This book may have been on the ‘do not read’ list at Summit, which is exactly why I needed to read it. We all know the media is biased. This book goes way deeper into how and why, specifically pertaining to war, terrorism, and the middle east. This was a very important book to read before travelling to Lebanon. Special thanks to Walrus Books for having such a fantastic collection of English language books in our favorite Buenos Aries neighborhood of San Telmo. Recommended for those who are wary of the unfair influences of the media, and want to know more about how propaganda and ‘spin’ work.
Walrus Books: Our favorite bookstore in Buenos Aires
An Intimate History of Humanity
by: Theodore Zeldin
country: Argentina and the Atlantic Ocean
What a great name for a book, and even better name for an author! Just read this description and tell me you’re not dying to get your hands on it…“Zeldin attempts a history of human thoughts and feelings unfettered by considerations of historical epoch or culture. Each chapter focuses on a particular thought or feeling, such as toil, the art of conversation, voluntarism, compassion, attitudes on class and social status, and authority.” So, so good for anyone, but especially travelers. Understanding people who are different from ourselves is what travel is all about. This is one of the most quotable, nuanced books I have ever read. Highly Recommended
The Great Gatsby
by: F. Scott Fitzgerald
country: Lebanon (from the Library of Jodi T.)
How had I not read this book before?? Some things are just unbelievble. Two things got me interested in this book. First, watching Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” (for the third time). And second, the exciting preview of the movie coming out in May. Promise me, as I promised others, that you will read the book before watching the movie! Please? Recommeded
by: Wendell Berry
country: Lebanon (recommended by Bethany’s brother Joel)
This is the best book I’ve read in the past five years, maybe ten. Absolutely satisfying. Peaceful beyond imagination. I really can’t even put it into words. I read it at one of the lowest points of my trip, at a time when I needed it most but didn’t know it. It’s just off-beat enough that one has to decide to read it. But once you do, you can’t put it down. Like that 100 bucks you put in the cookie jar, save this for a rainy day. It’s like discovering a treasure. Oh, and have you noticed the W. Berry fad going on? It’s for a reason. This century, I predict he will surpass C. S. Lewis’s popularity amongst Christians in the last century. Most Highly Recommended
From Beirut to Jerusalem
by: Thomas Friedman
As if my increasingly unfavorable views on Israeli politics needed reinforcement, this book caused me to see things from a more middle eastern perspective. Considering the author lived for seven years as a journalist just blocks away from where we were staying (btw, he’s a Jew), this book brought Beirut to life. Like when he talks about the imposing Holiday Inn Hotel where snipers shot from the rooftops and men were thrown to their death, and I could look out my window and see the same bullet ridden buidling standing ghostly against the sky — it was surreal. I should have read this book a long time ago, but I wonder if I would have appreciated it in the same way. Highly Recommeded
Browsing at Walrus Books
country: Lebanon and South Africa
There were some great stories in this book from the personal life of Lamott (btw, the book has nothing to do with actual traveling). I recall one particular story she shared about a time when she was in a low spot and struggling to pray. She met with a pastor in her neighborhood, and he told her that he would take care of praying for her for a while, and that she should stop. I was touched by that. Sometimes the burdens we carry require an intercessor for a time. He carried her burden which released her to meet God in a new way. Other than occasional, heart-felt stories such as this, I was unimpressed with the book. She frequently expresses her distaste for dogmatism and fundamentalist Christians, but somehow justifies weaving her own dogmatism into her writing. Not particularly recommended
by: Wm. Paul Young
country: South Africa
I’ve met Paul Young twice. He can laugh or cry at the drop of a hat. He’s suffered a lot of criticism for writing this book, but it remains one of my favorite stories. It reads like a soothing balm. Highly Recommended, especially for those who have suffered loss (so basically everyone).
The Lexus and the Olive Tree — Understanding Globalization
by: Thomas Friedman
country: South Africa
I should have read this back when “globalization” was a buzz word, but nothing hits it home like visting country after country and seeing its effects everywhere. The examples in the book are a little (sometimes a lot) outdated, even though the book is only 12 years old. But hey, that’s how technology works! The principles remain true. There are more up-to-date books out there about globalization, but Friedman is a very engaging writer. Recommended
country: South Africa
Not recommended, unless you are a sexually frustrated middle aged women, or want to understand the ecological significance of coyotes. Ok, maybe that’s a bit harsh. I did read this book cover to cover, and it did keep my interest. She weaves her extensive knowledge of the environment into a fairly soapy story about two women and one man, living separately yet connected in the eastern US. It DID change my perspective on coyotes (and wolves) but I had to wade through a lot of irksomeness.
The Tipping Point
by: Malcolm Gladwell
country: South Africa (from the library of Gavan H.)
How do fads catch on? A fantastic premise for a book, but he does a much better job at getting his point across in the next one. See below.
country: South Africa (also from the library of Gavan H.)
Why are a vast majority of professional hockey players born in January and February? How do people become who they are? Is it chance? Destiny? IQ? Opportunity? All or none of the above? This is the kind of book you get when a sociologist writes his version of a thriller. And yes, it kept me on the edge of my seat. Recommended
Yes, more books on our trip.
The Catcher in the Rye
by: J. D. Salinger
A wise man recently compared me to Salinger, I figured it was about time I actually read something by him. And seeing as it also came highly recommended by Bethany’s brother who discovered Jayber Crow for me, I picked it up. It was a fast read, not what I expected, and definitely something everyone should read at some point (like my post). But seriously, Salinger is a literary stud and I’m not. Recommended
In Cold Blood
by: Truman Capote
The real-life story of a family killed in a peaceful Kansas town in the 60s, and the killers who committed a seemingly senseless act, as told by the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. At the time, this was an entirely new genre of literature. Recommended
Brother Number One — A Political Biography of Pol Pot
by: David Chandler
Visiting the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields were two of the heaviest experiences of the year for me. It’s easy to make assumptions about what caused the recent genocide in Cambodia, about factors related to the Vietnam War and US involvement, and especially about the motives of Pol Pot himself. This book makes an earnest attempt to understand the factors and motivations influencing Pol Pot. As a biography, it attempts to be fair while not ignoring the atrocities. Recommended especially for those wanting a better understanding of Pol Pot, the Killing Fields, the Vietnam War, the Genocide Museum, and the King of Cambodia (deceased this month while we were in the country).
Pictures taken of Cambodian citizens before they were tortured and killed in Phnom Penh
by: Paul Coelho
country: Cambodia (from the library of Jenny R.)
The ultimate metanarrative about journey, this book speaks in metaphors nearly universal. Recommended especially to travelers, seekers, and parents who read aloud to their children.
The Great Cat Massacre
by: Robert Darnton
country: Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and counting…
Story is probably the greatest tool available to sociologists and anthropoligists in their attempt to understand history and human behavior. For instance, Little Red Riding Hood was an oral story passed down through generations in the lower classes of the rural France. Why was her hood red? This book seeks to understand the answer to this question and a thousand more. Recommended for those who delight in stories, their meanings, and the significance of oral story telling in lower class societies. BTW, I’m still reading it.
Kaylea, Bethany and me waiting in line for seats at the cafe frequented by Jorge Borges
So, what about you?
What have been some of your favorite reads while traveling?
Or, what books have you especially enjoyed after visiting the place(s) to which they were connected?