At the Shell station cafe where H. and I stopped for an ice cream after a walk on the Point Roberts beach, I spotted a “take one, leave one” shelf of books. Although I had nothing to leave, I scanned the titles. Turn Right at Machu Picchu caught my attention, so I took it. I would bring it back or leave another — next time.
By this small chance, this small curiosity, I was off to Peru, following author Mark Adams as he followed in the paths of Hiram Bingham III who was credited, though not entirely accurately, with “discovering” that Inca site visited by thousands of tourists today. I have never forgotten reading for some literature course — it must have been in university — Peter Shaffer’s play The Royal Hunt of the Sun, the magnificent Atahuallpa Inca betrayed by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro. I’ve taken the slender book with its blue cover along to every place we’ve lived since, on account of its first impact on me, and now I opened it again, saw my markings, my underlinings, and re-read the play, travelling not only to a place but to the past — a time of confrontation between two civilizations but my own past as well, and my encounter with a powerful and unsettling text.
“I like to read in a literary stream of consciousness, unplanned, meandering, one book leading to another in an organic fashion that I need not think about too deeply,” blogger and reader extraordinaire Kerry Clare wrote some time ago. “[F]or the most part, I let the books decide.” And so it is for me. I do plan, but books assert themselves into these plans, and I’ve noticed the meandering lately, and the places I’ve gone — a stationary version of Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go! Reading is an experience of time and place, just as physical travel is. If I had a so-called bucket list, Machu Picchu would not be on it, for I feel satisfied with having been there via these books and, while reading, looking up internet photos of the details. (Much as I’ve walked the Camino several times from my chair and feel it will have to be, at my age, enough.)
After Peru I went to northern England in an enactment of Old Briton in Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, drawn there by hearing Moss speak with Eleanor Wachtel, and similarly, per a Writers and Company (CBC) conversation, to Germany during the Second World War and beyond (into the complicated coming to terms with it) with Nora Klug. Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home was a journey of text and graphics that made me unable to read anything else for several days after. Some books are like that: they fasten me into themselves so thoroughly in a kind of awe or vast sorrow or mystery that by the last page all I hear are its echoes and I just have to stay in that space for a while, listening still.
In a thrift store I found a pristine hardcover copy of Helen Humphrey’s first novel, Leaving Earth, and for a time I circled Toronto with two daring women aviators, back in the 1930s when such feats of daring and panache were all the rage. I was astonished at the poetry of Humphrey’s narrative of this long, long circling. I also found the autobiography of Madeleine Albright, U.S. Secretary of State during Bill Clinton’s second term, and I read Madame Secretary, unsure why, for I hadn’t intended on such a book. But the book decided. It informed me and gave me context for what’s happening in American politics now, and because bile sits in my throat on account of the current scene, perhaps I needed an intelligent knowing voice, like draughts of cool spring water, to ease the discomfort.
I began Pulitzer winner The Overstory by Richard Powers and loved it — it gobsmacked me, as they say — until page 260 of 500 pages and then I felt I’d been immersed in trees and the story enough to know it and simply paged through to the end. But I did read — entirely — Ariel Gordon’s book of essays Treed, because I love the cover and because I know Ariel and because the book took me back to Winnipeg, where we lived for nearly four decades, and its marvellous canopy of trees. And not just to the trees of Winnipeg, but to mushrooms and Banff and rural Manitoba. I’m fond of trees, though I don’t know their names half the time; I like to touch their bark and even mutter to them if no one is around to see or hear, so the tour with Ariel, who is even fonder of trees and much more knowledgeable, was a fine education and pleasure.
These are some of my recent armchair adventures. And you? Where have books taken you this summer?