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Traveling With Books

March 12, 1989|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | Colvin is a Redondo Beach free-lance writer

Every traveler setting off on a foreign journey has been advised to pack light.

So when my wife and I prepared for our first long trip--nine months in Europe, Southeast Asia, Australia and the South Pacific--we tried hard to reduce the weight of our baggage. The choices were difficult, but among the most perplexing were those related to books.

We are readers. Each of us at any time reads several books, two or three daily newspapers and the major magazines. We could no more be happy not reading than not eating.

So what should we take to read? Where would we find new English-language books after we exhausted our supply? How much would they cost? How could we even carry the guidebooks covering all the areas where we were going?

Wouldn't we be too busy seeing, experiencing and tasting to stop and read?

Time to Read

Not so. Experienced travelers know that the rhythm of longer trips--those lasting, say, more than four weeks--is often leisurely, leaving plenty of time to lounge with a book on a Thai beach or to stop cycling early to spend an afternoon reading on a Welsh hillside.

It would be impossible to keep up the whirlwind pace of the typical two-week swing through Europe over the long haul of nine months without feeling constantly exhausted and disheartened.

In addition, many happenings are beyond control and leave gaps ripe to be filled with reading. Unless you are traveling by airplane and rental cars you will use public transportation far more often abroad than you do in the United States.

And Greek ferries don't always leave on time, even if French trains do. Bus schedules are as unreliable in Indonesia as they are exact in Singapore.

Rainy days, immigration procedures, well-lighted English and Irish pubs and off-season visits to sparsely populated Greek islands all provide good excuses to open a book.

Don't become so absorbed in your reading that you pass up opportunities to interact with the people. But also don't forget to take time for yourself.

For Added Meaning

What you take to read depends upon you, but you might consider fiction or nonfiction books that are related to areas in which you plan to stop.

Nicholas Gage's "Eleni," for example, describing in dramatic detail small-town life in Greece during and after World War II, became particularly poignant because we read it while living in a town on a Greek island.

Winston Churchill's war memoirs gave powerful meaning to the names of the towns we cycled through along the Normandy coast. Reading M. F. K. Fisher in France gave us a much deeper appreciation for the French people's attachment to good food.

Also, buy for quantity as well as quality. Carrying one or two large (always paperback) books is easier than keeping track of many thinner volumes. Besides, with a big book you're less likely to run out of reading material when you're unable to get more.

We discovered that with "Lonesome Dove," Larry McMurtry's 900-page saga of the twilight years of two mythic Western heroes taking the first herd of Texas cattle north to Montana.

Because new books are expensive in Ireland, often double or triple their cost in the United States, we did not buy any. We were cycling along the western coast south of Galway, and encountered no towns large enough to support a used bookstore.

Sharing a Book

Although we both cherish books and normally cannot bear to part with them, let alone damage them deliberately, I tore "Lonesome Dove" into two chunks. She read the first half while I continued with the second half.

Subsequently I tore off 100 pages at various times, and passed them on to her until we were both finished. Not only did we save on weight but we were sustained until we finally found a used bookstore in Killarney.

The idea of not damaging books also applies to guidebooks. Some guidebooks cover so much territory that they are unwieldy. The "Let's Go" budget travel guides, for example, are huge compendiums with detailed chapters on each country.

But since we were only traveling to some of the countries covered in the guide, we were unwilling to lug along the entire volume. Into our luggage went the chapters on the countries we planned to visit. The rest, looking rather deflated, remained home on the shelf.

Another method of lightening the load of guidebooks on long trips is to use the mails. You or friends can send ahead the books you need to a post office address or a friend at your destination. Most American Express offices, however, won't accept packages. They also charge a fee if you're not a card holder.

You also can use the mails to ship books home. Or you can patronize used bookstores as you go, trading books you've read for ones you haven't. Used bookstores are musts for readers on tight budgets, because new books in English are expensive in most countries.

In Athens, for example, we sought to buy a guidebook on Southeast Asia, our next destination.

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