Because Hiking and Reading Are Pretty Much the Same

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A scenic path through the wilderness

Over the past few weeks, in between rounds of Robinson Crusoe (on audiobook) and Journey to the End of the Night (in French), I’ve turned my exhausted eyes on A Walk in the Woods. The memoir—a classic work of travel writing if ever there was one—hilariously describes Bill Bryson’s attempt(s) in the mid-1990s to hike the Appalachian Trail—a 2,200-mile stretch from Georgia to Maine.

After weeks of hiking, Bryson and his companion, Stephen Katz, arrive in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. At a local outfitter’s, they spot a 4-foot map of the Appalachian Trail and, eager to measure their progress, examine the lower half of the map. They discover that their trek, in its entirety, covers barely two inches.

In Bryson’s words,

One thing was obvious. We were never going to walk to Maine.

Instead of feeling defeated, Bryson and Katz celebrate their liberation from a self-imposed obligation. They were, they reasoned, left to select the sections of the AT they wanted to hike, and to enjoy the journey. “A whole dimension of drudgery,” he wrote, “—the tedious, mad, really quite pointless business of stepping over every inch of rocky ground between Georgia and Maine—had been removed.”

Recognizing their limitations—and reining in ambitions run amok—freed them from the weight of a burden they didn’t even realize they carried. (They were, in all likelihood, too distracted by the 40-pound burdens that were their hiking packs.)

Today, I am recognizing my limitations, reining in my ambitions, and removing the weight of a burden that is simultaneously weighing me down and blocking my path.

Oh, I’m still going to read all 100 Greatest Books of All Time. That’s what this Challenge has been about all along, and I’m as determined as ever to meet it, shake its hand, and take a selfie or two with matching duck faces and a flattering filter.

But I’m not going to write long-form reviews of every last title on the List.

This blog has steadily overtaken the time and energy I intended to devote to reading—and as much as I love it, something’s got to give. The blog was meant to accompany the Challenge, not become one of its own. And as my only obligation is to myself, I think it’s time I eased up a little.

Since—for now, at least—I hate the idea of stopping entirely, I’m just going to cut back. I’ve begun preparing a series of “Quick Reviews” of those novels I don’t feel inclined or equipped to critique more thoroughly. The first set is scheduled to go up in the near-ish future at something o’clock.

The likelihood of anyone caring is, I realize, microscopic. And therein lies my point. So here I go, on a trail ever upward but a little less steep, through a forest with a few extra resting places. I have 31 books left and a fresh pair of boots.

Happy reading to me, and to you.

I May or May Not—No, Wait, I Definitely and Doubtlessly—Have a Huge Crush on a 63-year-old

Remember when I tried to sell you all on Nick Hornby?

Well, consider this my official sales pitch for Bill Bryson, travel* writer to the stars. Hilarious, astute, and terribly, wonderfully relatable, Bill Bryson is an exceptional travel companion, a discerning guide on adventures both far and near, and a cautionary tale (in all the best ways).

*He’s also written on a diverse list of non-fiction topics like science. I couldn’t figure out a clever way to work that in, though.

I’ve only read a few of his books, but only because I’m saving and savoring them with as much restraint as I am capable of. I can’t bear the thought that, eventually, he will die—probably before I do—leaving a finite bibliography behind him, and that at some point in the future, I will finish reading every last word he ever penned.

Earlier this week, I began reading A Walk in the Woods, one of his most beloved travelogues, in preparation for the soon-to-be-released movie version starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, and Emma Thompson. The book is so funny, and charming, and warmly written that I catch myself daydreaming about what my own eventual hypothetical hike along the Appalachian Trail will would be like.

The point is: Read Bill Bryson as much and as often as you can. He’s like a lollipop for the soul. And if you don’t believe me, I dare you not to laugh at any of the excerpts below:

From I’m a Stranger Here Myself:

‎For reasons I cannot begin to understand, when I was about eight years old my parents gave me a pair of skis for Christmas. I went outside, strapped them on, and stood in a racing crouch, but nothing happened. This is because there are no hills in Iowa. 

Also from Stranger:

The other day I called my computer helpline, because I needed to be made to feel ignorant by someone much younger than me.

From The Mother Tongue:

It was the practice of aggrieved citizens at that time to scratch a curse on a lead tablet and toss it with a muttered plea for vengeance into the spring. The curses were nothing if not heartfelt. A typical one went: ‘Docimedes has lost two gloves and asks that the person who has stolen them should lose his minds and his eyes.’ 

From In a Sunburned Country:

It is not true that the English invented cricket as a way of making all other human endeavors look interesting and lively; that was merely an unintended side effect.

And, finally, from A Walk in the Woods:

Hunters will tell you that a moose is a wily and ferocious forest creature. Nonsense. A moose is a cow drawn by a three-year-old.

If I Could Only Have One Bookish Adventure in My Life, I’d Choose This One

If you were around last time, you’ll remember that I promised a life-altering post about bookish Bath, a town that smelled terrible a couple centuries ago but is fine now. I’m delivering on that promise today.

A year or two ago, my friend Anna mentioned a bookstore in Bath that offers what they call a Reading Spa. It was the coolest thing I had ever heard of, and I vowed to follow in her footsteps at the earliest opportunity.

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The best bookstore name since Shelf Indulgence

When you arrive at Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights for your Reading Spa appointment, you begin by sitting down with a staff member in the “bibliotherapy room” to have a one-on-one chat about your favorite books, authors, genres, themes, and so on. The bibliotherapist feeds you cake and tea and then disappears for ten minutes or so.

Scenes from Tintin grace the staircase.

Why hello, Tintin. Didn’t expect to see you there

When they return, it’s with a huge stack of books specially selected for you based on the chat you had. The bibliotherapist then talks you through each book, one by one, offering a plot teaser and the reasons it’s recommended for you. That done, you’re left alone to make the agonizing Sophie’s Choice of which books to take home (the voucher comes with £45 toward purchases), all the while stuffing yourself with tea and cake.

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The preciouses

My husband (let’s call him Spiderman) quickly jumped on board my Reading Spa bandwagon, because:

a) it sounded ridiculously cool, obviously,

b) we bought a new bookshelf recently and decided it was time to grow our book family, and

c) we both struggle with the age-old conundrum “don’t-want-to-waste-time-reading-books-we-don’t-like-but-can’t-possibly-know-if-we-like-a-book-until-we’ve-read-it.”

When I called to reserve a time slot, I was asked whether we wanted to share a spa session or book separate ones—in other words, is our taste in books similar or different? I LOLed and said our favorite books would scoff at each other if forced to use the same sidewalk or elevator. Separate spas was the way to go.

My bibliotherapist’s name was Nic, and he is someone I’d happily share a canoe or a bunker with. I came prepared with several lists and specified that classics should be avoided at all costs. (This seems like the appropriate time to mention my rosy-cheeked glory at being 2/3 of the way done with The 100 Greatest Books Challenge.)

My lists looked something like this:

Likes:

  • Contemporary and historical fiction
  • Travel writing
  • High-quality YA
  • Intelligence, insight, and wit
  • Lots of humor and a little bit of romance

Dislikes:

  • Poor/lazy writing
  • Weak female characters
  • Dark/depressing themes

I included an utterly incomplete index of my favorite authors:

  • Nick Hornby
  • Bill Bryson
  • Jane Austen
  • Kurt Vonnegut
  • Mhairi McFarlane

And a quick briefing on a few of my least favorite authors:

  • John Steinbeck
  • J. R. R. Tolkien
  • John Updike
  • Veronica Roth

I told Nic that I would especially love to find another Nick Hornby and/or Bill Bryson, and his reaction was a well-masked but resounding “Duh.” He said that Bill Bryson is, frankly, in a class of his own—a huge talent who is often underrated because his books are funny instead of S.E.R.I.O.U.S. I inched toward mild anxiety (Has Nic given up on me already???), but by the time our book chat was over, he claimed to have, if anything, too much information to go on. Plus I’d eaten a whole cake by that point.

Deep in discussion on crucial book matters

Deep in discussion on crucial book matters

When he returned from his quest, a tower of 22 books was cradled in his arms. He picked them up one by one and told me about:

  • The son of a drug baron who desperately wants, for his eighth birthday, a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia (Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos)
  • A blind French girl and an orphaned German boy who cross paths during World War II (All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr)
  • Hiking adventures in Afghanistan penned by a literary “ancestor” of Bill Bryson (A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby)
  • A series of interconnected short stories that won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan)

And much, much more:

  • Almost Heaven by Martin Fletcher
  • What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn
  • Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
  • Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
  • How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
  • The Vacationers by Emma Straub
  • Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto
  • The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
  • Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
  • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
  • Be Safe I Love You by Cara Hoffman
  • I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley
  • Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir
  • May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes
  • American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
  • Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
  • The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall
= happiness

= happiness

I took home the ones in bold above and began reading The Knife of Never Letting Go (the first installment of Patrick Ness’ YA trilogy Chaos Walking) on Sunday. I finished all three books in the series by midday yesterday, having put work and social life on hold until I’d reached the heart-stopping finale. Gripping and superbly written, Chaos Walking turned out to be the very definition of un-putdownable, if un-putdownable were an actual word. If it’s possible to read a book ferociously, then that is what I did. I could hear the pages shouting “Ow!” in protest as I tore through them.

So I’d say Mr. B’s is a tentative success.

My husband, Spiderman, arrived with enthusiasm for his own Reading Spa and left with a crush on his bibliotherapist, Ed. His prep looked like this:

Likes:

  • Fantasy and sci-fi (especially post-apocalyptic)
  • Historical fiction
  • Well-paced plots with unpredictable twists and conclusions
  • Rich, in-depth world building in new settings

Dislikes:

  • Long, tedious descriptions
  • Plot points that are “too easy”/any sort of deus ex machina

Some favorite books/series:

  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Lion of Macedon by David Gemmell
  • Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons
  • ASH: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Ed and Spiderman, stroking a nonexistent goatee

Ed with Spiderman, stroking a nonexistent goatee

And his eventual book tower looked like this:

  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
  • Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
  • Children of the Days by Eduardo Galeano
  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
  • City of Stairs by R. J. Bennett
  • The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
  • The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
  • A History of Histories by John Burrow
  • Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer
  • The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya
  • Pastoralia by George Saunders
  • The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
  • The Red Knight by Miles Cameron 
  • The Nao of Brown by Glyn Dillon
  • Joe the Barbarian by Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy
  • The City & the City by China Miéville
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In case you were wondering how Spiderman spends his time when he’s not out saving NYC from itself

The most exciting find for Spiderman was Ancillary Justice, winner of every major science fiction award in 2014 and written by a woman.

So there. I hope I’ve done my book advising duty for the day and paid Mr. B’s its proper tribute. Nic and Ed are largely to blame for our titanic suitcases on the way home, and for this mammoth blog post. Also my friend Anna. But let’s all stop pretending I minded for even a second.

YOU'RE WELCOME.

YOU’RE WELCOME.

Travel Websites Worth Reading

Books are fun, right? Like, really fun, most of the time, unless they’re about the Great Depression or written by a celebrity. Any celebrity. Even the ones who think they are writers.

My only competing passion is travel. Reading and travel are pretty much the same thing — a window into another world, and other such clichés — except for the fact that you can do one of them on your couch. Travel can only be achieved by venturing toward other people’s couches.

The two can be combined in the oh-so-satisfying stew of glory known as travel literature. Bill Bryson’s hilarious and informative books are in permanent rotation on my bookshelf, and I have strict travel guide preferences when it comes to trip planning (Fodor’s for cities; Eyewitness for countries or regions, in case you were wondering). But too often overlooked are travel websites.

There are hundreds of great travel websites that play host to personal essays, destination guides, tips and resources, and topical feature stories. Short and easily digestible, these articles can be read during your coffee break — and the really great ones can inspire you to stop working entirely. Have you ever wondered what a French nudist colony is like, how to use a Chinese toilet, or where to find the best mititei in Romania? Lonely Planet’s not going to tell you that. (OK, they might, but the internet is faster.)

These are some of my favorite travel websites:

Happy reading, and happy traveling.