Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Traveling: in time, place, culture

It's a cliche that we travel between the covers of a book.  I believe we travel farther and in a more complex sense as we read than when we go to a movie or watch television.  That travel, in time, back to a period I may know a little about, or almost nothing about, and to a place I may have visited but have only a superficial knowledge of is fascinating to me.  But traveling into the mind of a narrator of a story -- and at the same time into the mind of a writer -- is even more fascinating.  I buy books by authors I never heard of from cultures I know little about. 

This time of year my local library is getting rid of their overages of books at 3 for $1.00.  Most are mysteries and I skip over them although I know mysteries are addictive like sniffing glue.  I don't want the quick thrill and the deadened of brain cells. I look for books by foreign authors, read the blurbs and if it's not a "coming of age" book (at 75 I've lost interest in the pains of discovery) I will add it to my "to read" bookcase. If I've got a dud, as I'll know after 20 or 25 pages, I can pass it on via Goodwill.

Last week I bought a small novel (really a novella) by prize winning Christophe Bataille called Annam.  It's about a boat load of soldiers, priests and nuns who set sail to Vietnam in the 1700s  to conquer the territory both by the sword and the holy word. All perished, but the religious people adapted and lived longer.  It was based on fact, set in a country I know of from a very different period. It was told in a beautifully stark way. For less than 24 hours I was in a very different time, place and culture(s) -- two really, the French and the Vietnamese.

I have just finished a fascinating reading of The Garden Where the Brass Band Played by a Dutch novelist of considerable repute in the first half of the 20th century, Simon Vestdijk. (pictured above) This book has waited patiently in my "to read" bookcase for maybe seven or eight years.  I was in the mind of a very precocious boy in a small Dutch town where social status is very important (he was "the judge's son") and at a time when a piano teacher might be highly eccentric, a drunkard and both admired and disdained. I was in a mind I'd never have chosen to be in, in a strict culture that was familiar from British books I've read, and reading musical descriptions above my head but graspable all along with a doomed romance.

So in the course of a week I've traveled well beyond my boundaries and I've loved it.  I don't need to read a lot of novels or stories set in the American culture that I know from every day experience. Only the really fine writers can offer me something new and enlightening.  I'll go back to the library a time or two while they're having their sale and look for other books by foreign authors I've never heard of - or ones I have heard of (I got a book by Umberto Eco called The Prague Cemetery -- I've read other Eco books and know I can expect to be taken exotic places although the title immediate brought to mind an old Jewish cemetery in Prague that I visited.) For me "summer reading" is exotic traveling.


Jonas said...

Here's a tiny factoid:

Decades ago, I came across a study that examined the common traits of corporate CEOs. Turns out there weren't any except for this: all were voracious readers.

It makes sense. We can learn a good deal about life simply by living and observing. We can learn exponentially more by absorbing the experiences/thoughts of thousands of others...gazing upon the world through many thousand pairs of eyes.

June Calender said...

Many thanks, Jonas. I really hope CEOs are still reading because your summary makes great sense to me.


June -- Your reading material created an interested in me to read more foreign authors. I do seem to favor American authors but occasionally read international. thanks of the good post ~~ barbara