One of my favorite reading habits is finding books related to a travel destination. Reading in advance creates anticipation, and reading while I’m there gives me the satisfying frisson of recognizing landmarks “in real life” that I’ve just seen in a book.
On a recent trip to London, I took Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington with me. The neighborhood of Kensington is near that of Bayswater, where we were staying, so I could imagine the main character of the book walking the same streets I was walking, along the Broad Walk in Hyde Park, past the Victoria and Albert Museum, or along Oxford Street or Notting Hill Gate. Even better, the narrator of the book, Mrs. Hawkins, a war-widowed but still-young woman living in 1950s London, works as an editor at several publishing houses and describes her neighbors, co-workers, and various authors with both affection and humor. There’s only one would-be author, an untalented poseur and generally mean guy (he intentionally puts mustard on a sausage roll and feeds it to a dog in a pub!) that she really dislikes, and she repeatedly calls him, to his face, a “pisseur de copie,” that is, “a urinator of journalist copy.” The book is full of wry observations and practical advice, which you can read more about at The Awl, here.
With an e-reader, it’s become easy to download out-of-copyright books to read on your journey without carrying a suitcase full of old books. They’re generally free or nearly so. I found the following to take with me electronically: Bohemia in London (1912), by Arthur Ransome, well before he became famous for his Swallows and Amazons series; The Fascination of London: Kensington (1903) by G. E. (Geraldine Edith) Mitton; The History of London (1894) by Walter Besant; Dickens’ London (1903) by Francis Miltoun (also author of Dumas’ Paris); and two collections of fiction, by E.M. Delafield, who wrote The Provincial Lady collection, and E. F. Benson, who wrote the Queen Lucia books.
Of course I didn’t have time to read all of these—I’d never have left the hotel!—but it was a treat to dip into them, sampling sections as they caught my attention. For contemporary “travel reading” of a sort, it was also informative and at times instructive to read the London papers provided daily by the hotel, for news on matters domestic and international.
Of the older books, the one I most enjoyed was Ransome’s Bohemia in London, and I found myself bookmarking page after page. Here are a few of my favorite quotations:
- “I do not know quite what it is that leads artists and writers and others whose lives are not cut to the regular pattern, to leave their homes, or the existences arranged for them by their relations, for a life that is seldom as comfortable, scarcely ever as healthy, and nearly always more precarious.”
- “It is odd to think of the days when a shilling dinner was beyond achievement, when a sandwich and a couple of bananas seemed a supper for a Shakespeare. Yet those were happy days, and had their luxuries.”
- From the chapter “The Book-Shops of Bohemia”: “. . . the people who buy in the ordinary shops are disheartening. There is no spirit about them, no enthusiasm. You cannot sympathize with them over a disappointment nor smile your congratulations over a prize—they need neither. They are buying books for other people, not to read themselves. The books they buy are doomed, Christmas or birthday presents, to lie about on drawing-room tables. I am sorry for those people, but I am sorrier for the books. For a book is of its essence a talkative, companionable thing, or a meditative and wise; and think of the shackling monotony of life on a drawing-room table, unable to be garrulous, being uncut, and unable to be contemplative in the din of all that cackle.”
I’m still dipping into those books, even though I’m back home in Alabama, enjoying the memories of the streets I walked and the places I visited. London is indeed a far cry from Cottondale, but I can travel there any time in these pages.
Susan Cushman talks about my own book of travel poems at http://susancushman.com/traveling-the-world-with-poet-jennifer-horne/
Photo credit: The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, "In Kensington Gardens, London, England," 1901. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007675568/