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The Latest Chapter in a Journey Brightened by Books

THE WANDER YEAR / WEEK 29: WALES* A yearlong series following one couple's journey around the world.

August 27, 2000|MIKE McINTYRE

HAY-ON-WYE, Wales — With more than 1 million books for sale in about 30 bookshops, including one in a 13th century castle, this tiny town on the border of Wales and England is known as the secondhand book capital of the world. Visitors who browse the musty stone buildings lining the old, narrow streets will find entire shelves of books on such slender subjects as Himalayan kingdoms, Eskimos, land mines and Bulgarian history.

When Andrea and I arrived from Ireland in this charming hamlet on the River Wye, we were reminded of how much of our journey we've spent hunting, trading and reading books, often in places where they are hard to find. Aside from the pleasure of passing the hours and miles with a good book, reading about the countries we've visited has also enriched our travels.

Andrea is the reader between the two of us, and our trip has let her do more of what she already does a lot of at home. I'm embarrassed to admit that the large chunk of time I spend in the States playing golf and watching it on TV makes my library card a waste of plastic. But stripped of my clubs and remote control, I suddenly have time to dive into something deeper than Golf Digest.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 3, 2000 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Wander Year--In some editions, a city in China was misidentified in a column about reading ("The Latest Chapter in a Journey Brightened by Books," Aug. 27). The city visited was Yangshou, not Yangzhou.

Early on in this journey, my goal was to read a book about each upcoming country on our itinerary. While touring New Zealand, I was amazed by "Midnight's Children," Salman Rushdie's novel of modern India, and in India, I was entranced by "The Snow Leopard," Peter Matthiessen's account of his spiritual sojourn to the Dolpo region of Nepal. My plan fell apart in Nepal, where I couldn't find any titles on Vietnam, the next country we traveled at length.

I turned to books I should have read long ago, such as Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and John Steinbeck's "East of Eden." Meanwhile, Andrea was reading everything I had and knocking off such classics as Thomas Hardy's "Far From the Madding Crowd," J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" and Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace." Finishing the 1,444-page Tolstoy tome left room in her pack for five average-sized novels, and we were off and reading.

We trade books in as we go, usually exchanging two of our used paperbacks for one of the vendor's. We occasionally get the chance to trade for goods other than books. In Yangzhou, China, a restaurateur offered us pork fried rice for Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha," which we declined because we had already eaten and were about to board a bus. At a shop in Marpha, Nepal, a village in the Annapurna mountain range where everything is carried up on the backs of humans or donkeys, we swapped our dogeared copy of "The Snow Leopard" for three rolls of toilet paper.

We saw few English-language bookstores on the backpacker trail in Asia but found many cafes and guest houses that sell books on the side. As these places rely on trade-ins for stock, we were limited to the literary tastes of travelers before us. Shelves sagged under multiple copies of thrillers by such best-selling authors as John Grisham and Tom Clancy, books we've so far resisted. But from the popular heap, we've seized more engaging fare, including Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain," Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full," Bernard Malamud's "A New Life" and several installments from P.G. Wodehouse's "Jeeves" series.

It was tough finding English-language books in China, where there are strong censorship laws. We also had trouble keeping up with news of the world. We saw no foreign newspapers, and the Internet sites for the Los Angeles Times and other American media are blocked by the government.

Most of the books sold to travelers in Vietnam are photocopies. Peddlers walk from cafe to cafe hawking the same armload of titles, including Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things," Jung Chang's "Wild Swans" and several Lonely Planet guidebooks. I was thrilled to spot Michael Herr's "Dispatches," a book I'd searched for since India. Herr's saga of his stint as a war correspondent in Vietnam was so gripping, I felt doubly guilty that none of the $4 I paid for the bootlegged book would find its way to the author.

Whether reading on the beach in Thailand, in a mountain hut in New Zealand or on a train crossing the Ganges Plain of India, I've yet to meet a book on this trip I didn't like. A benefit of limited selection is that you're exposed to books you might not otherwise read. After finishing Graham Greene's "The Quiet American," a novel set in 1950s Vietnam, and Robertson Davies' mysterious and mystical "The Cunning Man," I felt silly for not having read these authors before, and I've been on the lookout for their works ever since.

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