Reading While Traveling

“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.” —Lemony Snicket

One of the best ways to travel is with a book or two written about or from the country or city you’re visiting. Plane rides, train rides, afternoon coffee breaks, waiting for the museum to open, after bedtime quiet hours—there are pockets of time that aren’t always there in your “real life” that can filled with a good book.

Through reading a memoir or a novel, you get hints of the city to give you a sense what it must be like to truly be in a city, as opposed to just visiting. Even in translation: to see and feel the tiniest details on a page come to life before your eyes, to recognize the subway stations or the neighbourhoods mentioned. To have just visited the famous Maruzen bookstore in Tokyo as you read about a character ordering books from it in the early 1900s.

And so in preparation for Japan and Hong Kong, I brought along a few books written by national authors or based there. I did read a few other books along the way, just to break it up a bit, since we were gone for so long, but these were the ones that were more geographically thematic.

In Japan:

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima
A classic in Japan, and the first in the Sea of Fertility tetralogy (I plan on reading the rest), the novel takes place in the early 1900s, and through the intimate details of the rigid social structures and aristocratic hierarchies of the time in Japan, it is a story of young love and passion, family relationships, wealth, Western influences, social norms, marriage and tragedy. Quite good.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
A memoir, a rare non-fiction work from Murakami, a favourite author of mine, on his long-distance running habit. I had just finished Killing Commendatore before we left for Japan, which is about an artist who has lost his inspiration and is thrust upon a surreal journey to looking for it, and so it was particularly interesting to read this one because in along with his journey in long-distance running, Murakami also discusses his path to becoming a writer.

I also brought along Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe, but didn’t have time to get started.

And for Hong Kong: it was surprisingly difficult to find books to bring along, but I did my best.

Kowloon Tong by Paul Theroux
I know Theroux more for his travel writing, but he has written several novels as well. Kowloon Tong is about a British man who owns and runs a factory in Hong Kong, just before the British handover of the colony to China, with an added twist of suspense with some missing people.

Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester
I was surprised with how much I liked this one. A story about a man from England looking for an adventure, and heads to Hong Kong in 1935. Over the next several decades, his story is interwoven with other perspectives and stories, while living through the war and other events in Hong Kong. He meets a nun. It involves the triads. It sounds a bit hokey, but it all comes together in the end. Plus the locale features heavily, which was fun to read while in Hong Kong.

Diamond Hill by Feng Chi-shun
It was much easier to find (English language) Hong Kong-based books written by and about white expatriates living in Hong Kong rather than Cantonese Hong Kongers, so it was nice to come across this memoir on growing up in a poor area of Hong Kong in the 1950s. A quick read. I tried to pass it along to my dad, who was only quasi-enthused about having to read about his own childhood. I picked this up from Bleak House Books in San Po Kong, a real community book store with new and used books, a great children’s section and events.

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee
A British couple moves to Hong Kong in the 1950s, and the main character, Claire, while there, meets another white expatriate whose story in the 1940s, through the war and occupation, unfolds into their relationship. A couple of complex love affairs as well as an interesting look at the relationship between white expatriates and upper class Hong Kongers. Filled with historical details about the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during the war.

Brothers by Yu Hua
I’m still finishing this up, but this one is highly recommended: two step-brothers are going through life, and embracing brotherhood in China. It starts with how their families came to be and their own adolescence in the Cultural Revolution. Both funny and heartbreaking—actually heartbreaking. Apparently quite well known in China and Hong Kong, and has received much critical acclaim.

There was definitely some planning ahead of time (these are in fact, library books!) which is always one of my favourite parts of trip planning—the least stressful, for sure. I also loaded up my iPad with a few ebooks (again, courtesy of the fantastic Toronto Public Library), but I read less often than I anticipated from my iPad. In large part it was because I tend to be overly ambitious in my reading plans and so was just getting through my paper books, but also because I tended not to bring my iPad out and about unless we were meeting a vendor.

I’m also still getting over my self-consciousness with too much device usage, even with reading books. While I do sometimes struggle with attention while reading on my iPad—a few swipes and I’m looking up an event that got a passing mention in my book and all of a sudden I’m down a rabbit hole of Wikipedia links— it’s also in part because I’ve got the kids around. It’s not so much that I don’t want Caleb to see that people can in fact read books on their iPads (this is actually something that’s important for him to learn: that iPads and devices can indeed be powerful and useful tools), but more so that he will see devices everywhere in his life (his kindergarten classroom already has a class set of iPads) and so it’s nice to normalize reading paper books also.

That being said, it was thrilling to be able to still browse through the library’s online catalogue and download a few ebooks or audiobooks. If I didn’t have Jon heading back halfway through our trip, and able to schlepp home a few of my books (and return them to the library), I probably would’ve needed to be more strategic in selecting ebooks to download.

I had, in general, much less time to read than I expected. In Japan, especially, our days were often busy, and as I had the great and exhausting fortune of traveling with two young children, it was just in small sips that I dipped into books here and there.

As part of traveling, I also like to pick up a book or two from the places I visit. In Japan, from Maruzen, I picked up Yukio Mishima’s The Frolic of the Beasts, and in Hong Kong, I picked up Brothers from Flow Books in Sheung Wan, a used book store with books stacked on shelves, on the floor, in piles everywhere. What a fantastic place. More to come on there.

Of course I would never suggest that the point of travelling be to sit in your hotel and read about the place you’re visiting rather than actually going out and walking through neighbourhoods, or visiting local shops, or getting lost in a park, or enjoying a cup of coffee on a busy street, and I certainly hope that no one takes it this way. But there’s always some down time, whether it’s afternoon naps, long train rides or sitting at a cafe. Enjoying a cup of coffee in Istanbul might be all the more enjoyable while reading something by Orhan Pamuk.

And in some ways, if a visit to Turkey is not really in the cards for the foreseeable future, perhaps something by Orhan Pamuk might be the next best thing.

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