Saturday, July 28, 2007

A bookworm's lament in a foreign country

So I'm living in a foreign country where English language books are extremely expensive, which means I am spending the summer with someone else's books - books bought on the cheap from the used bookstores and markets.

Whenever I enter a bookstore or stay at someone's house with an entirely new collection of books, I make a vow that I will branch out and read the kinds of things I don't usually read - intellectual books, memoirs, non-fiction. But I crave fiction - vast sweeping plot lines. My book club would describe these as "bawdy thrillers". But I love narrative - I get totally lost in a different world and I love it. As a child, I read memoirs written for young girls - my specialty was famous women. Amelia Earhadt, Florence Nightengale, Catherine the Great, Little House on the Prairie, Jane Addams, Clara Barton, Molly Pitcher, Dorothy Day, and Joan of Arc. They did inspire me and probably shaped me into what I am today but memoirs don't interest me that much anymore - I don't know why because I've loved "Don't lets go to the dogs tonight" and "The Liar's Club" and other memoirs that I've stumbled upon.

I read about an essay by a neurobiologist where he describes the phenomenon of going to a favorite restaurant and wanting to branch out from ordering the same dish on the menu each time--but, at the last minute, finding oneself unable to do so. The favorite dish always wins in the end--and this, he says, may be a kind of low-level epilepsy taking place in the brain. That seizing-up at the last minute is perhaps pathological, though very, very mildly so... Is the same thing true of books?

I try to read Stendahl's The Red and the Black, but wind up with Ian MacEwan and Graham Greene all over again, just the way I would do if I were at home. Maybe the point is that we use books to create model-homes for ourselves wherever we go. I remember traveling through Sri Lanka in 2005 by myself for a week before starting a mission. No matter how alien the environment, or how faraway I felt, my assortment of English novels in my backpack gave me a sense of being grounded, and of being home. This is when I grabbed Evelyn Waugh and the Forsyte Saga.

So what do I have on my bookshelf culled from the cheap used bookstores of Amsterdam? Check out the link on the left of this blog that leads you to a website called Good Reads... I met a woman who turned me onto it last night and its a great site. If you guys sign up for it and put your books up there, it'll be like book club never ended for me....

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