I recently returned from a trip to Vermont, where I spent about a week on the campus of Goddard College, hanging out with other writers. I've made this trip biannually for the last two years as a part of the MFA program
. These trips are exhilarating for many reasons: the gorgeous Green Mountains offer a much needed respite from city life; devoting an entire week to my writing is a welcome change from my daily life, in which I (as you know) sell the already-written words of others; and, the thunderstorms back east are better than television.
Every time I travel, whether it's a train trip to Seattle, or a day trip to Eugene or the Oregon Coast, I face the same dilemma: which books to bring? It's a more complicated question than it should be. This is what happens when you work in a book store. You're so accustomed to having an enormous selection that when you must pare it down to one or two paperbacks, you panic. Or at least I do. Will the books I choose affect the mood of the trip? Will the trip affect my desire to read the books I choose? What if I'm not, as it turns out, in the mood to read the Margaret Atwood's occasional prose on the train? Will I start reading The Da Vinci Code (horror of horrors!) over my seatmate's shoulder, just for something to do? What if I start reading The Sound and the Fury, realize just how pedestrian my own prose is, and spend
the rest of the trip ignoring the scenery while I mentally remove the punctuation from my novel?
What if others will judge me by the book I'm reading? I know I do it all the time. An otherwise interesting-looking person might go down in my estimation if they're reading something I would never, ever read. Yes, yes: judge not, lest ye blah blah blah. We all do it sometimes; there it is. And occasionally it affects what I might choose to be seen reading. Why do I care? I'm not sure. Generally my iPod clings lovingly to my person, thus creating an aural barrier between me and any potential conversations that might arise in an airport or lobby. But occasionally positive judgments do occur: I might be surprised and intrigued by the book someone is reading. It might make me wonder about them, about where they are going, about their history or future. They might suddenly and briefly become the most interesting person I'll never know. I'd like to be the most interesting person somebody will never know! Or is it, the most interesting person nobody will ever know?
In any case, my decision for this trip came down to practicality. I took Jean Rhys's Voyage in the Dark and Elfriede Jelinek's The Piano Teacher. Rhys is one of my favorite writers, and this was a slim, old mass market that slipped easily into the small pocket in front of my carry-on. It's about what most of her books are about: a beautiful but lost young woman getting by in 1920s Paris by hooking up with older, wealthy men who do her terribly wrong. There's lots of ennui and Pernod ? perfect for languid, moody writers on vacation. I finished the book after a day or two in Vermont, feeling quite satisfied with this selection.
The Piano Teacher, on the other hand, was to be the subject of a workshop at the residency and it was not exactly plane reading. Or, for me, it turns out, any kind of reading. I barely skimmed the last three-quarters of the book and spent the workshop hanging my head in well-deserved shame while the good kids who did their homework had a lively and intelligent discussion. So much for that.
When I had down-time from the residency I did something you might not expect of someone who works in one of the biggest bookstores in the world: I went to bookstores. This is something I would wager all bookstore employees do and secretly relish. It's not just about supporting other independent book stores, it's about being able to browse for books the way we did when we didn't work at bookstores. Walking into someone else's bookstore is like walking into someone else's grandmother's house: it smells funny but, somehow, it feels like home. I find some of the best books in these stores because I'm able to relax and enjoy the experience in a way I can't when my eye is on my job.
In Plainfield, Vermont, there is an old white house with a flowering yard and a sign indicating The Country Bookshop. Is there anything better than an old house crammed with used books? A fellow Goddardite, who also happens to hail from Portland, found a packet of postcards there, written by a Portland family to a Montpelier family in the early 1900s. I left with a pristine 1960s Vintage paperback of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a book I read to tatters in my late teens. If you think Stein is unreadable, give this book a try ? it's the most charming book, and full of gossip about famous literary and art figures. (One of my favorite lines, of Hemingway: "Recently a robust friend of his said to Gertrude Stein, Ernest is very fragile, whenever he does anything sporting something breaks, his arm, his leg, or his head.") I also purchased a 1950s mass market of Brave New World, Richard Hughes's In Hazard (nautical fiction isn't generally my cup of tea, but I loved A High Wind in Jamaica, so I'm willing to try anything the man wrote), and a handful of vintage postcards (the Phantom Ship on Crater Lake! St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans!).
Later, I visited Black Sheep Books, in Montpelier. Montpelier, for those of you haven't had the exquisite pleasure, may be the actual "City of Books." For a small city, it has an unbelievable number of bookstores. I counted six ? at least one on every block ? during a short walk through downtown. Black Sheep is a worker's collective, nestled above the quaint Langdon Street CafÃ©. In a tiny room overlooking the other quaint, historic buildings along the Winooski River, I found more books than I could reasonably take home with me ? it was one of the best selections of fiction and poetry I've ever seen in a small used book store ? I had to force myself to stop looking. There were many small press titles and excellent, obscure writers-in-translation. My shopping mates on this trip, poets Elena Georgiou and Christian Peet, and I had reached book Nirvana. Elena climbed onto a stool to pull poetry from upper shelves, and I nearly passed out squatting and standing over and over again to examine the shelves from top to bottom.
We each left with a stack of books. I had found some wonderful, hard-to-find Sun and Moon Classics, including Fur by Liliane Giraudon (whose beautiful and creepy stories are reminiscent of Angela Carter's), and Babylon by RenÃ© Crevel (who committed suicide by self-immolation as a "surrealist act of protest" (naturally)). I also bought Jane: A Murder by Maggie Nelson, a moving account of her aunt's life and the mystery surrounding her death, Coup de Grace by Marguerite Yourcenar (European war stories being something of a preoccupation lately), and Almudena Grandes's The Ages of Lulu (sexual awakenings are a good counter-weight for the war stories).
I left Portland with two books. I returned, all told, with sixteen. I left a bath towel in my dorm room because I simply could not fit everything into my bag. And I haven't regretted it for a minute. (Note to travelers making a trip to Powell's City of Books this summer: we offer shipping, for your convenience.)