Year in reading: around the world in 92 books

Barnali and I are both big readers, and were worried about the prospect of spending a year on the road without books to read. We need not have worried. Thanks to ebook libraries, bookstores carrying English titles, hostel exchanges, and friends' libraries, I was able to read 92 books during our year on the road, just a bit less than average.

We started our journey by sea aboard a container ship to Japan leaving from the Port of Seattle. Hours before we boarded, we discovered Left Bank Books, possibly my favorite bookstore discovery of the year. I bought a copy of Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, which I'd tried to read in college, but had quickly given up on. With ten days of ship time ahead (and a decade of reading experience since my last attempt), I figured this would be the right time to give it another try. I failed, managing to slog through most of the book, but finally giving up, defeated by armies of characters, impenetrable prose, and painfully disjoint narrative. Next time, give me a Satanic Verses instead. I finished the journey reading Mishima and Ishiguro's more conventional narratives.

As soon as we arrived in Tokyo, I couldn't help but notice that a large percentage of subway riders seemed to read on their phones. Inspired, I went online and started downloading public domain and Creative Commons books from, and putting them on my Palm Treo. I felt like a local with my phone held aloft, reading Tokyo Zero: My Tokyo Death Cult by Mark Horne, a thriller about a secret society trying to gas the Tokyo subway (while actually riding the Tokyo subway). But I started feeling the itch for "real" (i.e. print) books and tracked down a bookstore that carried English books. While on the road, weight, space, and cost were paramount, so I bought the densest trade paperback I could find, the wonderful thousand-page fantasy novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I later picked up a copy of an English translation of Oishinbo A La Carte, a manga about a Japanese food journalist; Charlie had told me about Oishinbo years ago, and it was just as good as he'd described. Both Barnali and I ended up substantially deepening our understanding of the ins and outs of Japanese food culture from the fun and readable anthology. I'll never look at chopstick etiquette the same way again.

From Japan, we sailed to China by ferry, to Vietnam by train, and by bus to Cambodia, where I did something I never thought I could bring myself to do: buy pirated books. I've spent a decade working in the book industry, and while I'm a critic of copyright maximalism, I'm still a boy scout at heart; I don't pirate music, movies, or books (even when nobody's looking). But reader, I succumbed. On the opposite side of the planet, starved of reading material, and surrounded by references to the depradations of the Pol Pot regime, I ended up buying pirated copies of First They Killed My Father
 by Luong Ung and The Gate by François Bizot, memoirs of the Cambodian genocide, which helped bring past events startlingly to life as we visited genocide sites and killing fields. We left these and most of the other books we purchased on the road at hostel book exchanges, where travelers were welcome to leave their read books and take new ones.

We proceeded from Cambodia on to Thailand, where I read the worst book of the trip, Thai Touch by Richard Rubacher, an atrocious expat memoir. From there by plane to India (the most difficult decision of our trip), where we spent over a month, seeing family. Barnali, her brother, and I traveled by train around South India. I ended up reading several Creative Commons ebooks on my phone. I was sitting in Bangalore reading Makers by Cory Doctorow, the newest novel by one of favorite writers, about entrepreneurship and hackery in the post-post-industrial American economy. On the night trains, after the lights would go out, I'd slip under my sheets and read free books on my backlit phone, as India clattered by outside. My favorite discovery was Mothers and Other Monsters 
by Maureen F. McHugh, her collection of thoughtful character-driven specfic short stories. I typically buy a handful of books on every trip to India to take home, but were prevented from doing so because of the limited weight we could carry on our backs (though we did pick up a copy of Micro Credit Myth Manufactured: Unveiling Appropriation of Surplus Value and an Icon in Dhaka).

By the time we got to Beijing to board the Trans-Siberian Express, we were equipped with a small bag of books, including several volumes of world history to help us put all that we were seeing into context. But we'd also bought a copy of The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson, the second volume of the trilogy which, oddly enough, we'd never heard of. We'd been on the road for so long that we had no idea of what kind of a publishing phenomenon Larsson's mysteries had become; all I knew was that the book was long, had a great cover, and intriguing jacket copy. We were hooked. We both read the book during our five-day journey across China, Mongolia, and Russia, and looked forward to reading the remaining books when we got a chance.

It was cold in Russia, so we veered southwest, spending a few days in Odessa, and then on to blessed sunny Turkey, aboard a ferry full of travelers unable to fly, grounded by the Icelandic volcano. We picked up a copy of ode-to-therapy-by-travel Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert at a hostel, which we read, and took turns alternately ripping apart and damning with faint praise. Gilbert wrote so well, and yet the thought of finding transcendence and love on a budget and schedule just seemed so terribly shlocky. By this point in time, we'd been blogging about our trip and the climate action movements we'd been meeting on the way for eight months straight, and we knew fully well how much work went into finding a string of experiences that would have the narrative cohesion to read well in print, and how much power a writer has in shaping that narrative of true events. It felt like we were being led along a flimsy plotline by a narrator we couldn't bear to dislike. This wasn't one of our favorite books of the trip, though it may have been the one that spurred the most discussion.

Our blood quickened as we made our way through Western European capitals, discovering climate movements addressing familiar challenges as we enjoyed staying with bookish friends. In Rome we read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, in Berlin The Women by T.C. Boyle), in Paris Perfume by Patrick Süskind, and in London, Chowringhee by Sankar, which we enjoyed discussing at Indraneel's book club. I raced through 28 books while in Western Europe, thanks to easy access to English books at bookstores and in friends' bookshelves. So many books around! It felt like home.

We took a container ship back westwards the Atlantic, where I spent a large chunk of time going through notes, writing about the three weeks of interviews we'd done in London. The only book I finished was The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (again, we'd accidentally bought an interesting book without having read the prequel). We arrived after two weeks at sea, spent some time with friends and family in central Pennsylvania and Boston, and took the train back to the San Francisco Bay Area via New York and Chicago. I loved the past year, but it took coming back for me to realize how much I'd missed being in a place full of English-language books to read, from libraries, bookstores, and in friends' generous bookshelves.

Ironically, most of the books I did over the past year were American or British. It's only now that we're home, with easy access to translated materials, large nonfiction collections, and no backpack weight or space restrictions to worry about, that we're getting a chance to read what we'd wanted to all along -- books from and about the places we went. Another wonderful year of reading awaits.

1 Comment

Did you see my post about Moby Duck by Donovan Hohn? Also, my favorite Margaret Atwood book is The Handmaid's Tale.

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We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

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