I’ve wanted to do this for a while: re-create visually a map of my books. Not the ones I own. The ones I let go.
In August 2011 left Taipei, where I had been working, to travel for ten months in southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Besides a lot of clothes I took with me three books: The Name of the Rose, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, and an old issue of Granta. I traded them in Ubud (Bali), Yogyakarta (Java), and Luang Namtha (Laos) for different ones. Along the way I read fifty-something books, relying primarily on fortune to tell me what to read. When I returned to the U.S. from Nepal, I carried with me a book of poems/traveling notes by Tom Morgan, Nazi Literature in the Americas, and an old issue of Rattle.
At AWP this year, I bought a lot of books. I don’t regret it; it was my first AWP. But as the stacks started to edge out my clothes in the hostel cubby, I began to worry how I’d transport the broadsides I’d been given and the spooky Monster: A Glottochronology without bending their corners. I mused to a faculty member from my MFA program that I must be some kind of book fetishist. I was quietly proud of this, I think. As if I’d somehow “made it.” But he told me how he doesn’t hold onto them. He’ll give books away without thinking about it. And this reminded me that I’d become a very different animal in the two years since I’d come back to the United States.
This is a project I was planning even as I lived it: to trace where I got my books during my time traveling, where I left them, and where they went with me in the meantime. I read the Koran on a 55-hour bathroomless bus across Sumatra; I got it in Sanur Beach (Bali) and left it in Tuk Tuk (Sumatra), an island in the middle of the largest volcanic lake in the world. I was given a copy of Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas that I was sure I’d paged through in the Kuala Lumpur airport three months before, and carried that with me for months (which, at the time, I resented) because it was a gift; I couldn’t rightfully sell it. I picked up McCarthy’s Crossing in the north of Laos and was shocked to find All the Pretty Horses a week or so later—happily, before I’d even started The Crossing—on a tiny bookshelf in a tiny village in the south.
I hope the diagram above will help revive some of the joy of moving books through the world, as opposed to the joy of simply having them. There are some books we keep close to us because they mean everything to us. I know this. But there are not many, I don’t think, that need that distinction. Some of my most wonderful experiences with books have resulted from chance: the surprise and joy of finding a Pushcart Prize anthology at Bookworm in Hanoi; passing Salman Rushdie’s East, West to my hiking partners on the Annapurna Circuit and talking about it as we walked through the Himalayas; even buying Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game in a mountaintop village in Nepal on a whim, and being approached two years later in Oregon by a strange, bearded man who wanted to know if I’d play the game with him and a group on Sundays.
I often forget that going through the world in control—a big part of which is our own tendency toward possessing—is not the best way to be happy. A lot of folks in the indie lit community know this, from what I saw of people’s generosity this year in Seattle. But I don’t know it, not well enough, yet. Watching all the arrows on this diagram: that reminds me. Books are a sort of currency, but in a very different way than money. This is why it felt so strange to me, I think, handing cash over the piles of books in Seattle. What books represent is not material value: instead, maybe, they’re like pieces of the heart that begin to grow cold if they don’t change hands.
The foregoing chart represents my reading for about ten months, between August 2011 and July 2012, when I flew to New York City from Kathmandu. The arrows represent books that led to other books; the question marks, of which more and more begin to show up, represent the fact that I never wrote down and completely forgot what happened to a number of the books. But those, too, are a pleasant mystery. I wouldn’t want to know where all of them are.