Reading on the Road
In the spring of 1988, I got married and, instead of a traditional honeymoon, spent the next four months vagabonding through Europe with my wife, Ann. We were both twenty-three, young by today’s standards to marry, but we were in love and ready for adventure. One of the great things about travelling and flitting about from one place to the next was the time available to read. These were the days before cell phones and texting, before iPods and ear buds, before everyone toted laptops like extra necessary appendages. I am not sure the times were simpler, but we certainly had a kind of freedom and anonymity, a sense of being out there all by ourselves, unheard of in the Facebook era.
We flew into Heathrow where an English friend picked us up and whisked us to her flat on the outskirts of London. During our stay, I finished reading On the Road, not the first time I had read the book, but what could be better than reading On the Road while on the road? I fancied myself a European Sal Paradise.
Jayne-Anne, our friend, gave us each a book at the end of our stay—The Complete Sherlock Holmes and Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. The books came right off her bookcase. Since Ann had already read On the Road and Jayne-Anne hadn’t, we passed on the book to her—and thus began months of reading and trading books with others we met on our travels, all of which I recorded in my daily journal.
While hitchhiking through Ireland, we got stranded in the rain with Christoph, a not-yet-twenty-year-old German who was tooling around before beginning his mandatory civil service to his country. One night in a Galway pub, we got to talking about literature and Christoph sang the praises of a German author I’d never heard of—Heinrich Boll. We travelled about a week with Christoph, including a few days in Dublin, where we slept on the floor in the flat of Frank O’Reilly, a friend of an American friend of mine. When Ann and I departed for France via ferry, Christoph saw us off and presented us with a pristine copy of Heinrich Boll’s 18 Stories, which I still have.
In Carcassonne, a medieval walled city in France, we befriended an old French street artist named Sauvignon, who ranted about Rimbaud and Camus and existentialism. He couldn’t say enough about Kafka and Dostoevsky. On the day Ann and I left, we purchased one of Sauvignon line drawings, and in addition to the art, he gave us a tattered copy of Camus’ The Fall (in English!). I’ve since read my way through all of Camus and Dostoevsky and Kafka, and I can’t say that I don’t think of the ranting Sauvignon whenever I think of those authors.
In Switzerland, I traded The Fall for Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. On a train to Italy, I traded Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to an American couple from Seattle for Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. All through Europe this kind of exchange went on and I read and read. Dracula. Ironweed. The Monkey Wrench Gang. Sometimes a Great Notion. Breakfast of Champions. It was wondrous. On my twenty-fourth birthday, my wife gave me Kerouac’s Lonesome Traveller. In Zagreb, which at the time was in the country of Yugoslavia, I learned of Ivo Andric and purchased a copy of The Pasha’s Concubine and Other Tales in an English bookshop.
Despite the weight they added to my backpack, I kept some of the books from those travels, but the majority I passed along because it was the most economical way to get “new” books and a great way to meet people. I don’t know how many years it would have taken me to discover Boll or Andric, or to realize just how much I enjoy the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. To this day, Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock remains one of the most gripping books I’ve ever read.
I am not sure when I’ll get a chance to travel and read the way I did thirty-odd years ago, but when the day comes, I will dust off On the Road and be on my way.