I’m finished two terms of library school. Hooray. Now is the time to put the naut in librarianaut and … not take a boat anywhere. But still! In the last 26 hours I crossed the continent and an international border with an ereader full of books and a laptop full of internet to help out and learn stuff at a library full of comics. That’s approaching the kind of vagabond librarian I want to be.
I’ve had The Other sitting on my shelf for a couple of months and just got to it. It’s a book of philosophical essays by Ryszard Kapuscinski about how people deal with people who are not like them. It’s not a rigorous philosophical treatise, but the thoughts of a journalist who’s spent most of his life off travelling the world and recounting tales of other lands (most notably in Africa and South America, which were places the censors back in Iron Curtain Poland wouldn’t censor too much about).
Reading this book made me want to go places again, to travel, but not as a tourist. To go with a mission, like anthropologists do, like a real journalist, going off to find out about people and what life is like in faraway places. Every time I go to China, I realize how hard that is.
One thing he talks about in regards to the dichotomy between Europe and the rest of the world which used to be dominated by it, is how that dichotomy was created in part because Europe’s first ambassadors to the rest of the world weren’t noble wise people. They were scummy ruffians who’d set sail because they didn’t have good lives back in Europe. They were misfits in an unromantic way, antisocial and greedy and were ready to take anything they could get from the people/creatures they encountered.
One of the most important things in this book, or at least a thing that resonated most strongly with me, was the idea of the self needing an Other to truly define it. You don’t know what you are until you are exposed to something else, the ways other people organize their lives. This kind of Other requires seeing these people in different places with different histories as still being human, so it’s actually historically quite a recent phenomenon. And one helped along by anthropologists.
It was a short book but very good. I’d probably read it before reading Travels With Herodotus if I hadn’t read any Kapuscinski before.
I do not own an iPad, but I handled one today. It was pretty and all, but the killer for what I think I want out of an ereader is the battery life. If I need to plug it in every day or two (like I do with my phone) it’s not worth it to me. I don’t think. That said, the idea of toting about enough books for a month long trip in one light little package is appealing. So I’m trying one out.
I got a Sony Reader 500. It’s an e-ink display thing without wireless or colour or any whistling bells. All it does is display text. My eyes aren’t bad yet so the 5″ screen is fine for me. I’ve loaded it up with about a hundred public domain books, some of which I’ve read and some I haven’t. Tomorrow I go off travelling for almost five weeks. I will be very happy if I only have to recharge the thing once, and will still consider it a success if I have to charge it twice. I have no idea what 5 weeks of reading on this thing will be like, but I’ll keep track and report.
Paul Theroux’s The Elephanta Suite is a collection of novellas about Americans interacting with India. They come off badly in each one. In one, there’s a couple who’re at a resort practically hiding from “the real India.” They’re oblivious to such a degree that they didn’t realize there was a town near the resort where they’re being pampered, until their sexual peccadilloes get them all caught up in it. Another story is about an American businessman who gets caught up in debauchery in Bombay. He pays for sex with a young girl and then takes a different underage girl as his slum mistress. All while accumulating kudos from all his colleagues back in Boston who didn’t have the guts to go to India. The third story is about a female university student who’s off backpacking. She goes to an ashram in Bangalore and gets a job doing accent training for Home Depot call centres. And then she gets raped.
So yes, none of the stories are really happy. And all of them see people searching for some kind of Indian liberation and getting fucked over by sex. The third one was my favourite, because of the injustice of the whole thing (the girl gets blamed for being raped), and how she responds.
It was interesting because Theroux mentions writing these stories in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, so I could see how he was pulling characters and settings from the trains he’d ridden. His description of how Indian men tend to be a little pedantic and addicted to explanation struck a chord with me. These characters were definitely people I’d seen in my travels.
Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels With Herodotus was about one of my favourite parts of life: reading books in foreign places. When Kapuscinski was a young Polish journalist in the 1950s he expressed a desire to go abroad “perhaps to Czechoslovakia.” He was sent to India, with a parting gift of Herodtus’ Histories. So the book is about Herodotus as a role model for the traveller, and about the way it shaped Kapuscinski in his travels. He tells awesome stories about going to China during Mao’s 100 Flowers Campaign and being shut up in his room, and of being robbed in Cairo by a man he saw every day before and after the robbery. He’s talking about going to Congo and all through it he’s got his Herodotus.
A lot of the book is Kapuscinski retelling stories from the Histories and wondering about the tales. He takes a very open, anti-cynical approach to these 2500 year old stories. When Herodotus says he heard that the people up the Nile eat with their feet he takes it as a wondrous kind of thing. Not that Kapuscinski believes that’s what Africans did back in the day, but that he takes the story Herodotus presents seriously, as kind of a marvel of reporting (even if it is second or third hand).
It was a good combination of tales from different times. When I go to China in July, I’m going to bring some Herodotus with me.
In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star Paul Theroux retraces the overland journey from London through Asia he took back in the ’70s (and wrote about in the book The Great Railway Bazaar). It’s impressive. The route isn’t exactly the same (he could go through Afghanistan and Iran in the 70s but not Georgia or certain parts of Vietnam), and it’s not entirely overland (he flew into India and Japan and a couple of other short hops) but it’s still a great read.
Theroux travels differently than I have, in that he talks to people through out the trip. He’s also travelling with more money than I’ve ever done, but still. The conversations he has with people on trains and in cars throughout Asia are much more impressive than anything I’ve ever done. I mean, he chats with Prince Charles in Rajasthan, and can get invited to dinner with Orhan Pamuk, so yeah. It’s a different kind of thing.
But he also is embracing of the vagabond loafing voyeurishness that travel really is. It’s a way of life and he talks about it really well. Since this is a return journey for him, he’s comparing how it is in 2006 with how it was thirty years before. I appreciate that very much. It’s why I went to China when I did, so I’d have something to compare it with later. The bits in Turkmenistan were crazy good, talking about their (now dead) insane dictator. And he talks with sex workers in loads of different places.
Also, I had no idea this would happen, but near the end of the book he hangs out with Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer in Japan (separately). Their recounted conversations were pretty great, and kind of make up for his unbearable snobbery on the issue of comics (all of which he dismisses as vacuous unchallenging pornographic pap).
It’s interesting reading about what he didn’t like about different places like Bangalore and China. They were the places where people are making crap-tonnes of money. Here’s what he said in one of his few paragraphs about China (he came into Kunming overland from Vietnam):
“China exists in its present form because the Chinese want money. Once, America was like that. Maybe this accounted for my desire to leave. Not revulsion, but the tedium and growing irritation of listening to people express their wish for money, that they’d do anything to make it. Who wants to hear people boasting about their greed and their promiscuity? I left for Japan, reveling in the thought that I was done with China – its factory-blighted landscape, its unbreathable air, its unbudging commissars, and its honking born-again capitalists. Ugly and soulless, China represented the horror of answered prayers, a peasant’s greedy dream of development. I was happy to leave.”
I ran a paraphrase of that by my friend who lives in China and she said “Oh dear, that makes me a little sad . . . because it’s true.” And that’s kind of what you want your travel books to do with their generalizations, right? Be at least a little bit true?
Moresukine is a comic about being a foreigner in Japan. Dirk Schwieger asked his webcomic readers to give him things to do/find out and he wrote short comics about them. They were interesting and insightful as far as I could tell. My main complaint is that it was far too short. Not enough stuff was done.
The appendices were actually pretty great because they were done by other webcomickers who got the same assignment from Schwieger: talk to a Japanese person and report on it. There was a diversity in ways that was interpreted and portrayed. Yeah. Decent little book, but kind of too quick a read.