Traveling light

Paul Constant

June 21, 2015

The old joke goes that the first book Johannes Gutenberg published on his brand-new press was the Bible, but the second book he published was about the death of the publishing industry. Like most of the jokes old booksellers tell one another to pass the time, it’s not funny but it’s got a sick tinge of truth to it; my two decades in the book business as a bookseller and a critic has spanned at least five distinct deaths of the publishing industry. When you start out in a life of books, you believe the death-hype and you worry for the future of your vocation. But after the third or the fourth apocalypse, the end seems a little less nigh.

The truth is that books will never go away because some certain situations demand books. We’ve evolved together, books and humans. Children, for one thing, seem genetically predisposed to love books from the start. And for another thing, it’s almost impossible to think about the word "vacation" without visualizing a well-thumbed paperback sitting on a beach towel. Even people who don’t normally read anything more than an earnings report will bring a thriller or two with them when they head to the country or the coast for a few days.

Vacations were one of the earliest advertised use cases for e-readers. You don’t have to pack all those heavy books into your luggage, early Kindle and Nook promotions assured us, when you can load hundreds of books onto a single lightweight e-reader. I’ve got no beef with e-books, but those ads never appealed to me. When I pack for a vacation, I look forward to bringing as many books as possible, because my favorite vacation ritual involves the reading and discarding of books.

On a recent two-week trip to Norway, I prepared a tower of ten books for the trip. The stack was substantial; it weighed about six pounds. And while I checked my underwear and kayak gloves and sunblock into the belly of the airplane, every single ounce of those books came on board with me in my carry-on backpack. Who knows? Maybe the flight would be delayed for a nightmarish twelve hours on the runway, or crash-land on some distant island? If that were to happen — my God, what would I read?

I can remember every step of my trip by the book I was reading at the time, and where I left those books when I finished them. On the flights from Seattle to Reykjavik and Reykjavik to Oslo, I gulped down a thriller1 and an experimental Russian science fiction novel2. Someone else in my travel party took the thriller when I finished and I left the sci-fi book — along with another thriller3 I read in a jet-lagged blur — on a hotel bookshelf in Oslo for some other traveler to find. On the train to Bergen I read a socioeconomic treatise on happiness4; I carried that book with me to Flåm, where it was joined by a comedian’s memoir5 as a donation to a hostel’s mangy collection of paperbacks. Up to that point, I’d read most of these books in one or two quick sittings, but one book — the British sci-fi novel6 that started out strong but faded in the final third — lasted an entire five-day kayak trip through Sognefjorden because I’d immediately fall asleep in my tent at the end of a long day of paddling. But soon enough I was back on dry land, and I wiped out the rest of the sci-fi novel and a young adult novel7 in quick succession. The young adult novel went to someone in my party, but the sci-fi novel went to a hotel library in Ålesund, along with an underwhelming horror novel written by Stephen King’s son8. On the flight home, I read a critique of austerity measures in Great Britain9 and a current affairs book10. Those made it back to my apartment, where they wound up in a pile bound for my next trip to a local used book store, where they will be sold and resold, maybe to wind up on the other side of the planet once again.

Occasionally, in dark moments, reading books can feel passive, like you’re not doing anything at all. But the act of reading and discarding books on vacation more closely represents what reading is really about. As you read, your load gets lighter. You leave behind your acquired knowledge as you move through the world, trusting someone else to find it and make it their own. Finally, by the end of the trip, your body feels lighter than a sunbeam even as your mind echoes with a chorus of new voices. You’ve wandered to distant places, and you’ve seen new locations through the eyes of other people, and you left something of yourself behind.

  1. Phil Hogan's A Pleasure and a Calling, a creepy, Highsmith-style thriller about a man who gets his kicks by wandering around in homes that belong to other people. Because he's a real estate agent, he has access to a whole lot of homes. Pleasure is the kind of book that forces you to root for the bad guy by basically giving you no other option. Hogan's no Highsmith — God, who is? — but the book is dark and funny and the protagonist is likable, in a highly unlikable way. You've never had your creep-buttons pushed in exactly this way for exactly this long.

  2. Boris and Arkady Strugatsky were science fiction novelists in the Soviet Union. Despite oppressive government censorship, they published some of the finest novels of their time. Melville House recently republished their controversion novella Definitely Maybe, and it's a total goddamn delight. An astrophysicist who feels he's nearing a moment of breakthrough demands isolation from his family, but just at the moment that he's about to make a historical discovery, he's interrupted. Repeatedly. Eventually, he's distracted from his work by some of his scientist friends, who themselves were interrupted at moments of great discovery. Are they all victims of some great cosmic conspiracy, or is it just easier to not work than it is to work?

    Definitely Maybe is the greatest tribute to distraction and procrastination that I've read since Geoff Dyer's masterful book-length essay about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage. It's the first book by the Strugatskys that I've ever read, and it makes me want to hunt down the rest of their library immediately.

  3. Credited to "Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming," Devil May Care is a James Bond novel that actually reads like a Fleming Bond novel: It's set in the 1960's, Bond is an alcoholic snob who loathes gadgets, and the plot doesn't involve any of the high-tech threats of the Bond film franchise. Literary Bond fans will ravish the book with their eyes for the first few chapters.

    Unfortunately, Devil May Care collapses toward the end, which is just when the Bond films traditionally start getting really good. A less-than-compelling final threat and a too-plodding denouement conspire to suck the thrills out of all that came before. If you're nostalgic for old-school Bond, Faulks gets the tone just right, even if he can't quite spin a plot as well as Fleming.

  4. Subtitled How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being, William Davies's The Happiness Industry makes the bold assertion that governments and corporations have slowly convinced the public that emotions are a resource and happiness is a key economic indicator. At first, this doesn't seem like a bad thing — shouldn't the happiness of its citizenry be a primary government interest? — but Davies claims that this focus on emotions is just another way to control the masses.

    The recent Facebook experiment that manipulated users in order to study their responses is only the most public in a long history of trying to quantify emotions on a mass scale. Davies suggests that what's coming will make Facebook's experiment look quaint in comparison. In a world where every other day seems to bring news of public and private agencies gleefully toying with our privacy, Davies's book might not make the splash that it should, but those who are interested in the techniques of control will find a lot to think about here.

  5. The thing that will first strike you about Patton Oswalt's memoir Silver Screen Fiend is the high quality of the writing. Yes, it's funny. And yes, the narrative is soaked in Oswalt's trademark self-consciousness, but the book is studded with beautiful images and powerful sentences. ("I take my bent, warped-spring seat in the briny darkness" of the New Beverly Theater, Oswalt writes. "This is the sort of abyssal darkness deep-sea fishes thrive on. Fueling themselves on glowing, volcanic vents on the ocean floor.")

    Too bad it's a little slight. Fiend only touches on one particular moment in Oswalt's evolution, when he decided, basically, to watch every movie ever as an attempt to prepare himself to become a serious director of film, and there's barely enough conflict there to drive a single essay. Oswalt's friendliness and candor makes for a fun reading experience, but the book is done before you know it, leaving a faint echo of "Is That All There Is?" ringing in your ears.

  6. Credit where it's due: the first third of British sci-fi writer Adam Robert's novel Jack Glass is almost impossibly good. It's the story of a handful of prisoners who are sentenced to years of hard labor in an asteroid. The prisoners are forced to work together using a few tools to make the asteroid habitable; if they fail, they'll run out of oxygen or freeze to death or starve. Roberts keeps the pages turning as problem after problem arises and is solved, or deferred until a later date. Then a terrible heirarchy arises among the prisoners, and things get even worse. The closing pages of this first third of Jack Glass represent the most shocking, horrifying scene I've read in a book since Thomas Harris stopped writing about Hannibal Lecter. The closing image is one that will stay with me forever. It's a stunning achievement.

    Unfortunately, the book keeps going. The second third, which shifts gears to focus on a priviliged teenage girl who decides to solve a real-life locked-room mystery, is also excellent, but the final third fails to bring the two disparate narratives together into a satisfying whole. It's not that it ends badly so much as the fact that it ends in a way that does not honor all the excellence that came before. But let's not diminish the greatness of that first bit. The fact is, if Roberts spent the rest of his life writing novellas featuring the murderer and rebel Jack Glass, I'd spend the rest of my life reading them.

  7. John Green's young adult novels are compulsively readable, and the first half of Paper Towns, in which Margo Roth Spiegelman takes Quentin Jacobsen on a mission to exact a Rube Goldberg-esque revenge on a cheating boyfriend, is maybe the most readable adventure he's ever written. And Green's intentions in the second half of the book, in which Spiegelman goes missing and Jacobsen tries to find her, are good. Green intends nothing so much as the deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl concept, in which a nonconformist cipher of a feminine ideal delivers meaning to an aimless young man. But the problem is that Paper Towns kind of falls for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl concept, even as it tries to push against it. Green can't help but want it both ways, and so the rest of the book suffers.

  8. The first thing most people say when they start reading Joe Hill's novel Horns is that it reads just like a Stephen King novel. Since Hill is King's son, it's not clear if that's a compliment, an insult, or just a statement of the obvious. And it's true that Horns does read like early King, down to the ridiculously solid premise: a young man wakes up with a pair of horns growing out of his forehead. He soon discovers that the horns force people to confess their deepest, darkest sins to him.

    Horns whips back and forth in time, filling in all the narrative blanks. We find out that our hero is suspected in the death of his girlfriend, who he met in high school. Then we go back and see the meeting. Then Hill explains every single event that happened between that meeting and the present day. The book suffers from all this (King-like) overexplanation, which leeches some of the smarmy fun out of the book's central concept. Like a Stephen King book, you can't turn the pages of Horns fast enough. But like much of King's later work, Hill's tendency to under-edit his bloated story and overexplain his character's motivation damns the novel to guilty-pleasure status.

  9. One blurb on the back of Kerry-Anne Mendoza's Austerity automatically convinced me to spend the 149 kroner on the book. It's from A.L. Kennedy — one of the finest Scottish novelists — and it begs browsers to "Please read this book," caling it "a heart-breaking, well-informed, intelligent and important joy." A.L. Kennedy does not need to tell me anything twice.

    And so it is. Mendoza's Austerity: The Demolition of the Welfare State and the Rise of the Zombie Economy is about as damning a document as you'll find. She charts the course of the conservatization of the British economy, and she gleefully names names and assigns blame all along the way. Those interested solely in American politics won't find anything to enjoy here — Mendoza is interested solely in Great Britain — but the story is familiar enough; you just have to swap a few names here and there, and you've automatically translated the book to address the American situation.

    America has some great writers on the sad state of political affairs (Matt Taibbi comes immediately to mind, but a cascade of names quickly follows). But I don't know that we have a talent quite like Mendoza, who so clearly explains why and how Britain's version of the tea party wants to privatize all government programs and crush the poor to bits of gravel. Even their single-payer health care, which is so envied and adored by American liberals, is at risk of demolition. Mendoza doesn't bring good news, but she delivers it crisply and loaded with moral outrage, which is the only way any decent human being should deliver bad news.

  10. Due to good manners, I felt that I had to save Åsne Seierstad's One of Us for the flight back from Norway. I couldn't in good conscience walk around Oslo with a copy of a book about Anders Breivik's spree of terror and mass murder tucked under my arm; it seemed disrespectful to carry a reminder like that around in plain sight on the same streets that he bombed.

    I still think not reading One of Us while on Norwegian soil was a good decision, but I'm so glad I read the book, because it's a fastidiously reported and big-hearted tribute to Norway's spirit. Seierstad follows Breivik's life from the very beginning. He was an outcast for his entire life, and Seierstad wisely doesn't try to attribute too much meaning and portent to his decisions. She doesn't treat the killer of children like a rock star or a captain of industry; instead, she charts his comings and goings, makes note of his contradictions (though he claimed to be a defender of Norway's purity, some of Breivik's only friends were children of immigrants), and expresses righteous sorrow at his actions.

    Some might say that the detail Seierstad imbues on the passage set on Utøya, the island camp where Breivik murdered 69 innocent men, women, and children, goes too far. She follows every step that Breivik takes that day, takes account of nearly every shot fired. But it's not at all a salacious account; in fact the pages detailng the massacre develop a kind of keening rhythm, taking on the qualities of a mournful dirge. She isn't writing this book to glorify Breivik; she's writing this to remember the people he killed.

    Seierstad explains the many points where the government's complacency failed its citizens. There were many points when law enforcement could have stopped Breivik, if only they had followed procedure or stopped to ascertain the full gravity of the situation. But the prose isn't accusatory, in the end. Who could have possibly predicted a lone madman with that much hatred in his heart?

    And in the end, the story is that of a justice system that works. Norway didn't respond to Brievik's spree with rage, or a thirst for blood. Instead, it responded with sadness, and grief, and a demand for a fair trial. One of Us demonstrates more dignity than you'd find in a thousand true crime thrillers. What could have been something ugly in the wrong hands instead reveals itself as a statement of belief in the beauty and resilience of the human spirit.

Books in this review:
  • A Pleasure and a Calling
    by Phil Hogan

    January 06, 2015
    288 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Definitely Maybe
    by Arkady Strugatsky, and
    Boris Strugatsky
    Translated by Antonina W. Bouis

    February 04, 2014
    149 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Devil May Care
    by Sebastian Faulks

    May 19, 2009
    400 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • The Happiness Industry
    by William Davies

    May 12, 2015
    320 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Silver Screen Fiend
    by Patton Oswalt

    January 06, 2015
    240 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Jack Glass
    by Adam Roberts

    May 09, 2013
    384 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Paper Towns
    by John Green

    September 22, 2009
    305 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Horns
    by Joe Hill
    September 01, 2014
    449 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Austerity
    by Kerry-Anne Mendoza

    January 15, 2015
    192 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound
  • One of Us
    by Åsne Seierstad
    Farrar, Straus and Giroux
    April 21, 2015
    544 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writers

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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