January 21, 2010

Good Read to the Rescue!

I was sitting on the train the other day listening to Bill Byson's A Walk In The Woods. As I listened (and laughed, inevitably), I looked out the window at the once-foreign city I currently call home and was reminded of another trip I'd made.

If you've ever travelled alone, then you may have experienced that moment: the moment when you realize that you are disconnected from everything you know and love. No one knows you where you are (I didn't have a phone, so this felt especially true at the time). You could fall into a ditch and expire loudly and dramatically, and no one would know to start looking for you. That moment when you realize that you are completely out of your element. The knowledge slams into you so hard that you are rendered terrified, temporarily helpless.

So it was for me in Vienna. It was the third stop on my first trip abroad, but it was the first time I truly felt panicked by what I was doing. I was in a country where I didn't know the language, where the transit system was so overwhelming that I couldn't even think about trying to use it. I didn't meet anyone at the hostel where I was staying (unless you count the five permanently half-naked Germans with whom I shared a bunk room). In the two stops before, I had made friends or met up with one, so I was never really alone. For the first time, I was forced to fend completely for myself. I felt like the world was going to swallow me up. I spent two days wandering around on foot, not really enjoying myself, fending off tears and my frustration at being such a baby.

These are the moments when you grasp for the familiar. So when I saw an English language bookshop, I stopped and picked up Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There. I marched over to a Starbucks I'd passed earlier, got myself a pumpkin spice latte, and read away the afternoon. That sounds like a horrifically touristy thing to do, and I suppose it was (later, when I was up to it, I did go to some of Vienna's famed coffee houses. They were amazing). I dove into my first Bill Bryson experience with the concentration of a drowning person clinging to a raft. I was hoping that Bill's travels through Europe would help to ease my mind. It did that, and a whole lot more.

Bill Bryson made me laugh out loud, something I hadn't done in days (I'd barely spoken, let alone laughed). His cultural blunders made me realize that my foreigners' awkwardness was normal, even expected. It was OK that I hadn't had a real conversation in over 24 hours! It was normal to eat alone while eavesdropping on strangers! He let me know that these things were just a part of the process. His insights lightened my heart, made me realize that traveling alone wasn't always supposed to be pretty, and that it was as much about discovering your own limitations and strengths as the place in which you're traveling.

That afternoon, Bill Bryson saved me. He allowed me to take a deep breath and think, "OK, then. I'm not really alone." After that, I had a great 'ole time. I threw away my map and let myself get lost. Getting lost in Vienna was how I fell in love with Vienna, and how I captured these:

It wasn't until now, years later, that I realized how much that book saved me. I'll always be grateful to Mr. Bryson, even though he'll never know it. That's the kind of book I'd love to write: the kind in which people see themselves and feel just a little bit less alone.

Has a book ever come to your rescue in a time of need?


  1. I love this story of you in Vienna. The pictures are beautiful! Some books just save the day don't they!

  2. PS -- My goodness I love the slideshow, I've just been sitting here staring with my mouth hanging open at the pictures YOU have taken! They are breathtaking!

  3. When feeling lost and adrift (both socially and, well, quite literally) in Patagonia, I found solace and joy in reading "Middlesex." (You told me you couldn't get into that one, yeah? Is it back on your Pile? I think it must have been the right book at the wrong time for you, my love. Because that book was MAGIC for me.)

    Admittedly, I haven't really felt lost in a while . . . maybe I should fix that, eh? So that I won't just enjoy a book, but feel saved by it.

    I was actually thinking about just that, in a loose sense, quite recently. Trapped in my home by this snowstorm, I've been reading Junot Diaz's "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." It reminds me of "Middlesex" very much actually. It purports to be about the life of some awkward kid, but it's actually a multigenerational epic. Both books draw the reader into a deeply moving family history . . . and both won the Pulitzer, incidentally. Anyway, it struck me that, while reading "Middlesex," I was insanely *engaged*. I couldn't put the book down (well, except when forced to do so because I had to kayak or some shit). I thought about the characters constantly. I was *there*. "Oscar Wao," I believe, is objectively as entrancing a tale. And yet, I'm deeply distracted. I stop reading every eight minutes to go check my e-mail or just to amble around my apartment.

    I read "Middlesex" while trapped in a tent due to inclement weather. I *yearned* for the weather to stay bad so I could stay in and read more. I'm reading "Oscar Wao" while trapped in an apartment due to inclement weather. I *yearn* to leave because . . . I think I should be able to leave?

    I'm really rambling at this point, but I hope you're sort of getting my point. A book can do so much more for a person when you're actually lost or stranded . . . or, you're just in a mindset where you can fully devote yourself to it. I think that if I'd read "Oscar Wao" in that tent, it would have been my salvation. But, unfortunately for Oscar, it was "Middlesex" I read in the tent, while lost, while yearning. And it's "Oscar" that I'm reading while profoundly un-lost. And it's preventing me from being as close to him as I'd like to be . . .

  4. You make a good point, my Tori. In reading Bryson's book at the moment, I felt like he was reaching through the pages to set me on solid ground again. The words seemed to be designed in order to make me laugh at myself. It was, in so many ways, like sitting down with a friend over a cup of coffee and just being made to feel BETTER. I think you're right in that we need to be really lost in order to make that kind of connection.

    I've had that experience while at home in my bed and emotionally lost, as well, and it felt much the same: I Capture The Castle steadied my teenage self and let me know that everything I was, was good, and everything I wanted to be, could be.

    I wish we could have that kind of experience with books more often.