Whenever I tell people I’m leaving town for some sort of extended period of time, they always ask me if I’ve packed yet. I spent a month in Europe this summer, playing insane contemporary classical music at a festival just outside of Frankfurt, and I started getting that question weeks before my departure date. I wanted to say, “Well, yes! Actually, this is the only shirt I’ll be wearing for the next month! Thanks for asking.”
I pack the night before, always. The only thing I really put a lot of thought into, really, is this: what books am I bringing? Weeks beforehand—right about when everybody’s asking about clothes, actually—there’s already a small stack of books on my desk waiting to be considered. There are so many factors: How long is it? How small is the type? What kind of mood would I have to be in to read this book, and what kind of mood do I think I’m likely to be in during my travels? Is it engaging yet simple enough to read during a single flight, or would I want to break it up and read it over the course of multiple days? How much does it weigh?
I’m cautious in part because I’ve made mistakes in the past. I once read Adrienne Rich’s book of essays, Blood, Bread and Poetry, on a single transatlantic flight; I arrived in Warsaw disoriented and full of feminist verve, but I don’t remember a single detail from my reading. On the flipside, in a move completely unlike me I read all of The Devil Wears Prada on a trip from Chicago to Phoenix and had a stress-and-irritability headache for days. The lesson was that some books should be read in good time instead of in a single jetlagged chunk, and that some books are just sort of dumb. Live and learn.
But the main reason I’m so careful with my travel books is that I want my reading to enhance my travels, to augment them, not to distract from or diminish them. I want them to help me cut through the haze of unreality and chaos that comes with being somewhere unfamiliar and allow me to connect with my surroundings. This doesn’t mean I read about where I am; it’s more subtle than that, and figuring out just the right book in advance gets tricky. It comes down, I think, to a sense of perspective.
The initial forty-eight hours of my trip to Europe this past July ended up being the most hellish travel experience I’ve ever had, bar none. In the course of those two days—and this is a very, very brief summary—I lost my wallet, my luggage (albeit briefly), and then missed a flight through no fault of my own and had a total breakdown at the ticket desk before being forced to pay a horrendous rebooking fee. This resulted in my arrival ten hours late, at which point I camped out with my suitcase and instrument on the front porch of what I could only hope was my apartment building and contemplated the fact that I was going to have to sleep outside unless somebody showed up to let me in. All of this while jetlagged. Oy.
Through all of this, on the plane and in the airport and on the porch by the fitful light of the hookah bar next door, I read nearly all of Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a look at the collision between the American medical community and the family of Lia Lee, a Hmong child with severe epilepsy living in Merced, California. When I wrote that last sentence, it felt clinical: here is what this story is about. But the book itself is so lovely and insightful and multifaceted that it can’t be so neatly summed up. It’s a look at cross-cultural communication, how language (both in its linguistic sense and as a cultural, religious, and ethical concept) divides and sometimes conquers us. It’s the story of Lia and the tragedy that befell her, in part because of these slippages; it’s also the story of the Hmong culture, which has withstood horrendous mistreatment for much of its existence and still persists, refusing to bow and assimilate into any other. It is all of these things, but in a very large way it’s more than simply the story of what happened, or why. It asks us, point blank, what we can learn from our mistakes. It’s beautiful.
It would have been a heartbreaking and mesmerizing book at any time but for me, sitting in an airport in England in a haze of temporal dislocation and emotional turmoil, it resonated in such a powerful way that I was nearly reduced to tears over and over again. Who cared if I missed my flight? There are cultures which we have torn apart in unjust wars; there are children whose lives have been forfeit because of ignorance. And even though I know those things, always, in those moments it struck me right on the breastbone with fresh force.
I made it to Germany, and then I made it home. On the way back I had run out of reading material and went back to revisit The Spirit Catches You. Sitting quietly, relaxed and under ten times less pressure than I’d felt on the way over, I still absolutely loved it. I’d made the right choice.
Ammie Brod spent most of her childhood trying to come up with a profession that would allow her to do nothing but read all day, but when that failed to pan out she became a classical musician and florist instead. Her fifteen minutes of fame, now passed, involved a google image search for the phrase "naked girls and me." You can read more of her writing at http://www.extraneousness.blogspot.com/.