What people omit to mention about the essence of travel is a small detail so obvious that one blushes to bring it up: namely, that every journey needs to start somewhere. A tourist leaves one country to visit another. A plane leaves one airport to land elsewhere. That the default setting on most online booking services assumes that you’re going to want round-trip tickets suggests that every starting point is like the shadow partner of every arrival: the two have to be different—quite different—and their difference is what gives every journey its purpose. But for this difference, there is no curiosity, there is no travel, there are no tourists. Home is what sets the course to our travels. Home is what we leave behind, knowing we’ll recover it at the end of the journey. Home is also what makes going away safe. To quote T. S. Eliot,“The end is where we start from.” An odyssey is just a return trip that’s taken too long.
From Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, by André Aciman. Picador, page 93.
Lucretius says that all objects release ﬁlms, or “peeled skins” of themselves. These intimations travel from the objects and beings around us and eventually reach our senses. But the opposite is also true: we radiate ﬁlms of what we have within us and project them onto everything we see—which is how we become aware of the world and, ultimately, why we come to love it. Without these ﬁlms, these ﬁctions, which are both our alibis and the archive of our innermost life, we have no way to connect to or touch anything.
I learned to read and to love books much as I learned to know and to love Rome: not only by intuiting undisclosed passageways everywhere but also by seeing more of me in books than there probably was, because everything I read seemed more in me already than on the pages themselves.
From Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, by André Aciman. Picador, page 33.
Forever Top 10: An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot
Long before I began working at Picador I fell in love with Jason Elliot’s travelogue An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan. I was working at Borders at the time and my manager recommended it. Her parents had met in Afghanistan in the ‘70s while volunteering for a humanitarian organization. Both considered it required reading.
There are many passages underlined in my well-worn copy and the margins are full of stars, exclamation points, and smiley faces. While many books on Afghanistan written today focus on the war presently taking place, Elliot’s book, published in 1999, stands outside of the current conflict and instead focuses on the people, landscape, and travel experience.
There are moments of meditative insight into being far from home:
And there it was again, that feeling that the journey was becoming more than the sum of its parts, more like a clandestine sculpting at work within me, which in the visible world I was merely acting out, to reveal—what? The shape of a character I knew only dimly from a life whose roots were growing more tenuous by the minute. How precious and remote the world of home now seemed! In ordinary life you know yourself from your surroundings, which become the measure and the mirror of your thoughts and actions. Remove the familiar and you are left with a stranger, the disembodied voice of one’s own self which, robbed of its usual habits, seems barely recognizable. It is all the stronger in an alien culture, and more so when the destination is uncertain.
At first this process brings with it a kind of exhilaration, a feeling of liberty at having broken from the enclosures of everyday constraints and conventions; this is the obvious, if unconscious lure of travel. But once it has run its early course a deeper feeling more like anguish begins to surface, until the foreignness of your surroundings becomes too much to bear. I had never felt so strongly before, and wondered: when does it start, this divorce from oneself, and what is its remedy?
As well as humorous interactions with locals, often equally profound:
I studied my map to try to find a lake I had seen in the distance, but it was not marked. I asked Ali Khan what its name was. ‘Lake nothing,’ he said, ‘just lake.’
After all these years, An Unexpected Light stays with me—both on my bookshelf as well as in my memories. It’s one of those books where you lose your surroundings and forget to breathe. Regardless of how many books I’ll read in my lifetime, Elliot’s book will remain forever in my top 10.
Last night at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Rosecrans Baldwin discussed his memoir, Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, the story of his time spent living in the French city. He spoke of the comparisons between the two peoples and what a place is like once you’ve settled in and gotten to know a few locals.
While in Paris, Rosecrans, a self-described Francophile, couldn’t get enough and proceeded to read a bunch of books about his new home. Here are four books Rosecrans recommends:
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
“It’s a wonderful, screwy take on 1950s Paris. The narrator’s voice just rampages.”
You can listen to Rosecrans talk about this novel on NPR.
The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Toussaint
“A novel in which nothing happens, and what does happen takes place in a Parisian bathroom for the most part. And yet: gripping, revealing, entertaining, and all in very few pages.”
The Friend of Madame Maigret by Georges Simenon
“It’s hard to pick one Simenon—I love so many. This one’s set in the Marais, where I used to live, so it’s a sentimental selection.”
Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant
“These are set around Europe in addition to Paris, so it’s a continental treat. Gallant has won all sorts of awards and she’s still underrated, I think. Effortlessly moving.”
You can listen to Rosecrans discuss Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down with WNYC’s Leonard Lopate as well as with Brad Listi on the Other People podcast. You might also want to read an excerpt at Salon. Rosecrans is also on Twitter at @rosecrans.
In keeping with this wanderlusting, here are our suggestions for books with a great sense of place:
The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal
Edmund de Waal is a world-famous ceramicist. Having spent thirty years making beautiful pots—which are then sold, collected, and handed on—he has a particular sense of the secret lives of objects. When he inherited a collection of 264 tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings, called netsuke, he wanted to know who had touched and held them, and how the collection had managed to survive.
And so begins this extraordinarily moving memoir and detective story as de Waal discovers both the story of the netsuke and of his family, the Ephrussis, over five generations. A nineteenth-century banking dynasty in Paris and Vienna, the Ephrussis were as rich and respected as the Rothchilds. Yet by the end of the World War II, when the netsuke were hidden from the Nazis in Vienna, this collection of very small carvings was all that remained of their vast empire.
Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz
Two centuries after James Cook’s epic voyages of discovery, Tony Horwitz takes readers on a wild ride across hemispheres and centuries to explore the Captain’s embattled legacy in today’s Pacific.
Recounting Cook’s voyages and exotic scenes — tropical orgies, taboo rituals, cannibal feasts, human sacrifice — Horwitz relives Cook’s adventures by following in the captain’s wake to places such as Tahiti, Savage Island, and the Great Barrier Reef to discover Cook’s embattled legacy in the present day.
Peter Robb’s A Death in Brazil: A Book of Omissions
Deliciously sensuous and fascinating, Robb renders in vivid detail the intoxicating pleasures of Brazil’s food, music, literature, and landscape as he travels not only cross country but also back in time—from the days of slavery to modern day political intrigue and murder.
Now in paperback for the first time at the end of this month, Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown by Michael Cunningham
“Cunningham rambles through Provincetown, gracefully exploring the unusual geography, contrasting seasons, long history, and rich stew of gay and straight, Yankee and Portuguese, old-timer and ‘washashore’ that flavors Cape Cod’s outermost town… . Chock-full of luminous descriptions … . He’s hip to its studied theatricality, ever-encroaching gentrification and physical fragility, and he can joke about its foibles and mourn its losses with equal aplomb.” —Chicago Tribune
THE PICADOR BOOK ROOM is a group publishing blog maintained by the employees of Picador Books. Any views expressed in these posts are those of the authors listed below.