Reading and Traveling: The Journeys and the Books

by Jerrad Peters

I am sitting on a bench in Plaça de Gaudí, from where I can look upon the Nativity façade of Sagrada Família unbothered while I drink my morning coffee. Antoni Gaudí positioned this side of his church to face the rising sun, and in the early hours the new light brilliantly illuminates the siliceous sandstone quarried from Montjuïc, the plaça’s small pond reflecting four spires across the water to where I’ve placed myself. I have come here to drink my coffee and to look at the façade, and also to read. My hotel is nearby, and I have come here several mornings already. The pensioners playing pétanque take no notice of me, and I enjoy the pleasant sound of the game as I open my book.

A Heart so White by Javier Marías has nothing at all to do with Barcelona. Granted, Marías is Spanish, but he lives in Madrid, near Parque del Retiro, and most of his novels take place either in the capital or another favorite setting, such as London or Oxford. Some of his secondary or even more minor characters are to be found in Barcelona, such as Professor Villalobos, who happens to have a rather important role in this book. But the protagonist encounters him in Geneva, and Catalonia receives only a passing reference in his description. So why am I reading A Heart so White and not, say, something by Enrique Vila-Matas, who not only makes his home in Barcelona but also lives on the same street as my hotel? Well, first of all, I haven’t “met” him yet. It’s only a few months later that I will buy one of his books, The Illogic of Kassel, and some years after that when I will realize, for all I know, that I might have passed him on an evening walk, brushed shoulders with him or waited behind him at a newsstand, or stood in front of him at the Carrefour. Second, because it simply doesn’t matter.

We don’t think of such things when we plan our travel reading. We don’t pack The Man with the Golden Arm when we visit Chicago, even if we plan on making a stop at Nelson Algren’s old drinking hole, the now-upscale Gold Star bar on Division Street; we don’t finagle Ivo Andrić’s hulking Bosnian Chronicle into our luggage before departing for Sarajevo, or, more specifically, Travnik, although I have never heard of travel plans that included Travnik; and we certainly don’t attempt a reading of Thus Spoke Zarathustra in Nice, where Friedrich Nietzsche first put pen to paper on his philosophical narrative, not even if we happen to be staying at 38 Rue Catherine Ségurane, where he spent the winter of 1883-84. The truth is, we don’t put much thought into our travel reading at all, at least not geographical thought. If anything, we select material that will complement our excursions—books we can finish before we return, novels with short chapters, accessible non-fiction and magazines for the beach, although Marcel Proust’s passages on Balbec might make for enjoyable beach reading. 

It’s only when we’re back home that we start to associate our reading with where we’ve been, that we realize our great reward. It is a reward far better a million times more than any souvenir, postcard, or pair of shoes we might have brought back with us.

It is mid-afternoon and I am in southwest Tsim Sha Tsui. I arrived the night before on a flight from Yangon and after checking in to my hotel I walked down Nathan Road and through Salisbury Garden to the promenade, from where I watched the light and laser show across Victoria Harbour. Today, when I left my room to seek out a bit of breakfast, the South China Morning Post was waiting outside my door. “North Korea,” so reads the headline, “declares it is now a nuclear power.” Also, former United States President Barack Obama has just arrived in the region. There is an interesting article about Ming dynasty shipwrecks.

Newspapers, such as the one I read this morning in Kowloon, are as essential to my travel-reading inventory as the books I bring in my suitcase. They reorient me to my location after a night’s sleep, however restful or restless, and adjust my body’s clock to a different time zone. “Look,” they remind me over breakfast, “there is morning here, too, and this is it.” They are comforting. Their very presence—flat, crisp and outside my door or at a newsstand—also speaks the word “morning.” They signify, as Roland Barthes might tell us, both a new day and the perseverance of the world. There was a newspaper yesterday morning, and despite what happened in the subsequent hours, no matter how agreeable or unpleasant, there is another one today. Here it is. We go on.

The South China Morning Post is an English-language newspaper. English-language newspapers can be found just about anywhere. Even in remote, northeast Myanmar I managed to find a 16-page broadsheet called The Global New Light of Myanmar. I would read it after riding my motorcycle to the Irrawaddy River to watch the sunrise. One morning, when it was still too dark to read, a gentleman told me that Japanese soldiers had committed harakiri on the plain beyond the opposite bank as the British closed in during the Burma campaign of World War II. Over a week in the Caribbean I read the British tabloids with the afternoon tea service and learned that George Best, Manchester United legend and international playboy, had passed away. In Vienna I bought the international edition of The New York Times—a paper that has published my articles, although it was known as the International Herald Tribune back then. While in Southern California, I walked with my young nephew to the corner store for the Sunday Los Angeles Times. There had been a demonstration opposing Donald Trump’s travel ban when we landed at LAX. It made the front page.

The language of the newspaper doesn’t much matter when we’re travelling. At least, it’s a secondary concern. I can always check Twitter for breaking stories or read articles in English on my laptop or smartphone. I am not buying newspapers for the news, even if it’s my personal preference to read a hard copy instead of digital. What I want when I’m travelling is to handle a newspaper, to feel the consolation of the pages, to see pictures and script, to somehow possess a piece of daily life in whatever place I find myself. The newspaper is a routine, and an important, enjoyable one, but it remains suspended in routine. It is with books that I establish something precious, that I conceive that great reward.

I am enjoying a glass of wine, a dry Lambrusco, on the west side of Piazza Navona. To my right, in front of Domitian’s obelisk, are painters displaying and selling their pictures. I can see one of Bernini’s four rivers from where I’m sitting, and the entire square is alive with the intensity of the Baroque I love so much. Bernini’s great rival Borromini is here, as are Rainaldi, both father and son, and della Porta. Half an hour ago I was inside the nearby San Luigi dei Francesi, the façade of which was designed by della Porta, looking at Caravaggio’s St. Matthew cycle. It was here, in this piazza, that Caravaggio chased down and assaulted Mariano Pasqualone in 1605. Less than a year and a murder later, he fled Rome for good. I have spent the past few days walking through the city and reading Barthes’ Camera Lucida—walking from Santa Maria Maggiore near my hotel on the Esquiline Hill to Villa Borghese and reading in Piazza di Siena; reading in Parco del Colle Oppio and walking past the Colosseum on Via di San Gregorio to Circus Maximus and then across Ponte Palatino for lunch and more reading in Trastavere; walking from Piazza Venezia through Rione di Ponte, crossing Ponte Sant’Angelo and stopping to read on a bench in Piazza Cavour before entering Vatican City.

Again, there is no particular reason for me to be reading Camera Lucida, although shortly after beginning the short book about the meaning of photographs I come to think that it might be the ideal book to take on a trip. Here is a monograph on the essence of looking. And there is much to look at in Rome. Of course, Barthes is writing specifically about photographs, about a photograph’s “violence”—”not because it shows violent things, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed” (italics his)—and their nature of “counter-memory,” the creators of which are “Agents of Death.” But my eyes, even more than my camera, are taking pictures: the blink of an eye, close shutter, that’s the image. And that image, Barthes says, is now in the realm of “that-has-been” (italics his), a picture that can never be replicated and is immediately part of the past, a memory of a memory, and I in the seconds, minutes, days, months, or years since capturing that image am leaving it further and further in the past while I advance closer and closer to death. This horrifies Barthes and fascinates me. But it’s not the only take-away from the book.

In his opening lines, Barthes writes about seeing a photograph of Jerome Bonaparte. “And then I realized, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: ‘I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.'” It’s the relational element of what’s happening here that interests me. Barthes is gazing into once-living eyes that beheld the figure of Napoleon. With Jerome as a conduit, there is a triangular relationship between Napoleon and Barthes. Similarly, as I encounter the basin of Circus Maximus, there is a triangular relationship between myself and Julius Caesar. When I look up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, there is a triangular relationship between myself and Michelangelo. When I venerate the Holy Crib at Santa Maria Maggiore, there is a triangular relationship between myself and the Nativity.

Camera Lucida presents a double reward—two gifts, the second of which is looking. Which brings me back to the first.

In its place on one of my display shelves, where I keep some of my favorite books, Camera Lucida will, whenever I withdraw it, remind me of the time I spent in Rome. I will read a passage about punctum (italics Barthes’) and recall, however absurdly, the Aurelian Walls. Because the passage transports me, I will always be in Rome when I read it. Then my memory, which requires some awakening but has nevertheless stored the passage in some dark, sleepy recess of its labyrinth, will do the rest, reminiscing suddenly about the passage because I’m looking at the Aurelian Walls. I will even pick up whiffs of odor, catch hints of sounds, and spot flashes of light from this place or that.

A passing glance at the same shelf and the spine of The Trolley by Claude Simon will bring back a hazy morning in rural Pennsylvania: “three women, they too dressed in black, standing on a doorstep, staring into the distance without moving, and in the middle of the road a bony gray donkey standing in a cloud of tiny midges clustered around its eyes and a bright red wound on its withers;” I will recall the rising Bay of Fundy when I feel the pages of Isabel Allende’s Portrait in Sepia: “I seek truth and beauty in the transparency of an autumn leaf, in the perfect form of a seashell on a beach, in the curve of a woman’s back, in the texture of an ancient tree trunk, but also in the elusive forms of reality”; The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson will escort me faithfully back to a warm autumn Saturday in Zagreb, where I drank a cappuccino and read on a patio across from the soaring gothic cathedral, the tallest building in Croatia: “I wanted to write all my friends and invite them down.”

Books are containers, and not only of stories, ideas, and meta-narratives—not that meta-narratives can be contained—but also of what we put in them, those pieces of ourselves we deposit between front cover and back. They are actionable as well. If I am intrigued by the setting of a book, or by an incident described to me in a particular chapter, I may well want to see the location for myself, or visit the scene where the incident took place.

I am walking up the steps to Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral in Prague. Although I had planned to visit the city for some months, I’d have overlooked this church were it not for HHhH by Lauren Binet, who won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman for his thrilling depiction of Operation Anthropoid. It was in this cathedral that the heroes Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiŝ made their stand after assassinating Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi governor of Bohemia and Moravia who, only months before, had been tasked with executing the Final Solution.

Today there are only four people inside: me, the priest and a parishioner in the north transept, and a woman vacuuming the red-carpeted steps of the altar. I basically have the place to myself, and I sit down in a chair beneath a bullet hole against the nave. I don’t have HHhH with me. I have already read it. I’ve been here before: “There are bloodstains on the wall and a pool of blood on the stairs—though that, at least, is German blood. And cartridge cases but not a single cartridge: they kept the last ones for themselves.” The stairs weren’t carpeted then, but they are now. Still red.

Outside the cathedral I make my way up Resslova, away from the river, zigzagging in and out of street construction and detouring through a shopping center before crossing Karlovo nám to Charles Square. I sit next to a fountain and pull a book out of my satchel: Sleep of Memory by Patrick Modiano. It’s the book I’m reading in Prague. “When I think about that summer, it feels as though it’s become detached from the rest of my life. A parenthesis, or rather, an ellipses.” More than a year after completing this trip I will reflect again on those lines, lines that are real for me, lines I have grouted into the brick around the fountain, the stones of Charles Bridge, the sidewalk in Karlin that leads to my apartment. 

Books do things. They run those errands for our minds we call memories; they’re the third point in the triangle of here and there; they’re the mortar that binds pieces of ourselves to the places we go. 

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