Books That Found Me

Compulsive reader: n. A person who cannot refrain from reading.

Situation: We pull into a gas station in Mexico to use the restroom. I jog across the tarmac to the ablution block only to pull up short in dismay at the large sandwich board sign displayed outside: Baños cerrados. Even with my tiny bit of Spanish, I get this: Toilets closed.

I slink back to the car and sit with legs crossed while Mark pays for the gas, contemplating the baños with resentment and some anxiety. Who knows how far to the next place of relief?

I see another driver stride purposefully toward the baños door. Any moment now, I think (somewhat smugly), he’ll see the sign and turn back. But no, he simply pushes past it and continues on. Is the door locked to thwart non-signreaders such as this brash fellow? No, it opens easily and he disappears inside. A second man follows the same path.

Clearly, the baños are not closed. Had I simply not read the sign or ignored it, I would have been blissfully employing papel higienico at that very minute.

My compulsive need to read every bit of text I see has often gotten me into similarly inconvenient circumstances.

On the other hand, being ready, willing, and able to read anything can be a blessing when travelling. I used to leave home with three or four novels stashed in my suitcase, irrationally worried that I would run out of things to read on the road. God forbid I should have to endure a moment at the airport or a rainy day confined to the hotel without reading matter.

However, as we stayed less often in big chain hotels where available text is inevitably restricted to the New Testament and the room service menu, I discovered a world of reading possibilities.

Many smaller hotels, inns, and hostels keep a shelf of books under the rule of “Take a book, leave a book.” Often, the selection will include many tempting choices in languages that you cannot even identify, much less decipher. There will also be dog-eared travel guides that predate the Internet and provide essential information for visits to the U.S.S.R., West Germany, or the Ottoman Empire on $5 a day.

But hidden among the flotsam, there will be jewels.

On the shelf of a nature lodge in the jungles of Mexico, I discovered a novel—The Name of the Wind—that I was actually planning to read anyway, as it had been recommended to me by a friend. Curiously, it was clearly brand new, and appeared unread. It was such an odd coincidence that I felt the book was meant for me, that it had somehow found its way to me.

In Ecuador, I browsed an inn’s bookshelf that stretched from floor to ceiling, covering an entire wall. Out of several hundred books, I pulled one called The Year of Pleasures, scanned the back cover and knew instantly this story about a woman trying to find a new life after losing her husband would go straight to my own grieving heart. I almost put it back, not sure I could handle it, but I promised myself I could put it aside it if it took me in the wrong direction. I galloped through it in three days, cried many times, and marvelled at passages that made me ask “How does she know?”

One of the best things about found books is that they challenge and tease you to read things you might never otherwise choose. Sometimes that means you are condemned to the only English-language volume available, which is usually a thriller by the uber-popular hack writer of the day, the one you never read. But other times you may be led to an unexpected place. Like the slim hardcover sporting a photo of a man wearing a dress and purse and the quirky title Kennense Noch Blümchenkaffee? Die Online-Omi erklärt die Welt. With my rudimentary German I puzzled this out to be: Do you still know flower coffee? The online grandmother explains the world. I guessed that the reference to flower coffee hearkened back to the war, when luxuries like coffee were in short supply and inventive Germans turned to making hot beverages from a variety of sources such as flowers. This is one of those almost-forgotten facts that has passed or is passing from common knowledge.

I still don’t know if my guess was accurate, but it intrigued me enough to flip through the pages. The book turned out to be a tongue-in-cheek “dictionary” of outdated terms and concepts that only an “omi” (affectionate term for grandmother) would still be able to explain–with a generous dash of humour and some social commentary. Example (rough translation): “In olden times, we already had ebay. Only it was without computer and it was called the church bazaar.” Reading this in German and then struggling through to a lightbulb moment when I finally got the joke was so much more fun than reading it in English, and a perfect way for me to stretch my foreign vocabulary.

There have been many other books that found me along the road. I must confess, however, that I have occasionally been known to take a book without leaving one, rationalizing such inexcusable behaviour with the thought that the universe seeks equilibrium and if I am caught without a book to leave, then somewhere there must be someone who has reason to leave a book without picking one up.

Even worse, while I usually conscientiously leave the books behind on another traveller’s shelf once I’m done, sometimes a volume begins to possess me and I take it home to hoard, pawing it lasciviously and mumbling My Preciousssssss! This is a bad habit. I need to remind myself that books need freedom to find new readers who will flatter and appreciate them. To paraphrase Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly!:

“Books are like manure: They’re no good unless they’re spread around, helping things to grow.”