Friday, July 31, 2009


Packing is inherently optimistic: there will be occasion for these dress pants, I will trim my beard each morning with these scissors, I will write in this notebook, I will read all these books. When I was accepted into a summer arts program as a high school sophomore, my dear, sweet parents packed the truck with everything I insisted I would need for five weeks at a far off campus. After much unpacking, I was the only kid with a record player, with a dressing gown and a robe, with a library. My first college roommate moved in with two green garbage bags and a baseball mitt. I'd already decorated my side of our room with silhouettes I'd made weeks before of Balinese dancers. I brought (and wore) wooden clogs. I brought two lamps. I've gotten better.

Yes, I still check a bag and pay the new surcharge, but it is not so big a bag, and I need the carry-on for magazines, earplugs, mints, a neck-pillow. I am not a good traveler. Even on a short trip home, I need books. My hometown, whatever its quaint charms, doesn't boast a real bookstore. Traveling nowadays usually means, and in fact meant, hours in strange airports with access only to bestsellers and the like. I packed accordingly.

My last working day before leaving on vacation, I bought a number of paperbacks. I only buy paperbacks for trips. I only pack books I am prepared to leave behind. I bought a mix of used books and remainders, and spent all of twenty four dollars. It was great fun, shopping.

I bought a book I own in a nice edition that I have never read, A Laodicean: A Story of Today, by Thomas Hardy. My new copy was a used Everyman Paperback, from 1997, edited -- though not abridged -- and annotated by one J. H. Stape, whose introduction I read when I got the book home. It was enough. I did not pack the book. Nothing wrong with Hardy, you understand, but I should never have read the damned introduction. I know better. I did read it though, just to get some sense of the thing, to make up my mind about taking the book with me, and the professor wasn't uninteresting. By the end, I simply knew too much; of the novel's plot, of Hardy's life when he wrote it, of the book's place in in the author's oeuvre, etc. So Stape's Hardy stayed behind.

I wanted something straightforwardly escapist, something contemporary and a little trashy, something the only purpose of which would be to spin out a plot, but not so obviously as to be boring. A thriller recommended by a coworker, Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith, from just last year, published by Hachette, seemed just the thing. I started it on the first of our two plane rides going, having finished and discarded my magazines. I must confess, the book will make a very good movie. I understand it started out to be just that. It rather reads, as so many contemporary thrillers do, like a well researched screenplay. So when I left it on that first airplane, in the seat-pocket, unfinished, it wasn't because I thought it a bad book. It simply didn't seem like I'd read a novel at all. When I'd read two hundred pages into it, I switched to another book, and then forgot Tom Rob Smith. I will have to wait for the movie, and the sequels I can already imagine, even without reading to the end of the first. The nice thing about forgetting the book is that I'd already forgotten it.

I put that thriller down to pick up Hawthorne's The House of Seven Gables, in a little Signet Classic, used, from 1990. I'd read this before, but not for many, many years, and having recently read the first half of Hawthorne's Marble Faun for the first time, and not finding a paperback of that on the shelves at the bookstore, I determined to bring another Hawthorne, and a familiar one, just to read something of his. It was surprisingly familiar, to begin with, and I admit I dozed somewhere around the time old Hepzibah closed her shop up for the day. It is a short novel though, and a wonderful one. I did finish it, later, sitting up in bed in my parents' house, listening to a wonderful summer thunderstorm.

Another familiar friend I brought along, an Oxford World's Classics of Great Expectations, from the Bargain Books table, I confess, I opened in our motel room just long enough to read the first three chapters one night before bed. Those three chapters were well worth the five dollars I'd paid for the book. I left it for some lucky housekeeper.

I was pretty sure I'd never read Roughing It, by Mark Twain. I hadn't. I didn't.

I was assured by my work husband, J., that I "would not like" my last selection, a mass market paperback reprinted by Sphere Books Limited of England, in 1976, but originally published in 1933, The Curse of the Wise Woman, by "Lord Dunsany," aka Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany (24 July, 1878 – 25 October, 1957.) I'm afraid I've so convinced my coworker of my stubborn prejudice against the supernatural, that he can not now imagine me reading even so much as ghost story without a disapproving sniff. He was wrong, just this once. Despite a great deal of hunting snipe and the like, I rather enjoyed the witch's revenge and the general atmosphere of Anglo-Irish mythologizing of weird Gaelic hoodoo. With the equally brief Hawthorne, this turned out to be the only book I brought that I did finish. I even brought it home with me -- along with the half dozen books I bought in a not very nice used bookstore I found just down the road from our motel in Monroeville, Pennsylvania.

Who knew?

But more of those another night.

1 comment:

  1. a motel in Monroeville, Pennsylvania... Nothing short of a catastrophic failure of travel planning can explain this.