Book loving while bike travelling

There is less than I thought there’d be to say about how to act on a love of book reading while bike travelling. That’s because many aspects of how I read aren’t specific to my travel and transport. I don’t have a monopoly on extended time away from brick-and-mortar bookshops and libraries. We’re not the only ones with limited space for paper books.

Anyone with enough Angolan kwanza could have been in this guesthouse room, their phone plugged into the yellow wall, reacting to their first malaria diagnosis with less emotion than expected, because their day’s tears quota has been reached, been shed—some onto the phone screen—as they devoured the part in A General Theory of Oblivion where old Ludo reveals that she has fallen in love with her strange life in Luanda, and doesn’t want to go back to Portugal:

“My family is this boy, the mulemba tree out there, and a phantom dog. My eyesight gets worse every day. An ophthalmologist friend of my neighbour was here in the apartment to look at me. He said I would never lose my eyesight completely. I still have my peripheral vision. I’ll always be able to make out the light, and the light in this country is a riot. In any case, I don’t aspire to any more: the light, Sabalu reading to me, the joy of a pomegranate every day.”

When we leave these yellow walls it will be after we have done our routine electricity hoarding. We always make sure our two phones and two battery banks are fully charged for future nights in the tent. Of all the things we do with them, reading is gentlest on the battery. All that’s required is to dim the brightness down to a minimum and switch airplane mode on.

What never gets used is the dynamo charging hub in Evan’s front wheel. The cable that connects to it was stolen long ago. He never replaced it, because keeping all the screens charged for reading and otherwise is far less of an issue than the bike travel forum posts had him believe, back when he was making his huge gear spreadsheets in the UK in preparation for his big bike trip.

When I met Evan I was a paper-everything snob: paper journals, maps and of course books. I had never read on a screen, assuming it would compromise the reading experience. But once I had finished the few books I had with me, and didn’t have access to more because we were in Kyrgyzstan, Evan’s collection on his phone’s Kindle app started to appeal. Today, I’m still logged into his account. These days it’s more of a patchwork of our agreed-upon purchases.

I used to subconsciously think that one must be monogamous in the medium they read in. Then, I prioritized: First and foremost, I wanted to read what I wanted to read. It followed that I would have to do so in whatever medium was available.

evan on his air mattress reading happy isles of oceania by paul theroux
Evan, like me, developed a fraught relationship with Theroux’s travel writing

Another aspect of reading we don’t have a monopoly on is an interest in books written by authors from the country they’ve written about.

A simple thought exercise was effective for me: I am from Canada. If I was to recommend one single book that foreigners should read about Canada, I would carefully consider the author. Now, writing this, I am considering this question. And in considering this, I realize, humbly, that the book I’d want to recommend is one I haven’t yet read. It would perhaps be something from this list of titles from Indigenous Canadian authors, so the reader could access their perspectives.

Regardless, the author I chose would likely be a person who had lived, loved and suffered in the place the foreigner wanted to learn about through reading the book.

If someone wanted, say, ten or fifteen books about Canada, then that would be a better time to include among them a book written from the perspective of a foreign traveller, journalist or writer. I don’t think my stance is controversial—if we’re talking about Canada. Consider this writer feeling icky after reading travel literature written about his home region, the American South.

Canada is one country, Africa is fifty five (-ish) countries, but I was not applying the same logic to all the latter. It didn’t seem that strange to leave the description of African countries, the analysis of them, to the people travelling through, whether for their pleasure or research or mission. There are some good books in this category, but I started to wonder why I wasn’t first hunting out books written from the perspective of more ordinary people living in that country.

I haven’t yet forgotten the look I got, almost incredulous, when I earnestly asked a literature doctorate in Zimbabwe, “but…how do I find a book about Zimbabwe that isn’t written by a white person?” There are white Zimbabweans. I wanted a book that told a story more representative of Zimbabwe’s black majority.

She said it wasn’t that hard to find such books, and her look perhaps belied her unasked question: “Google, have you heard of it?” Incidentally, among the titles she recommended was The Struggle Continues, by a white Zimbabwean named David Coltart.

An evening reading in Zimbabwe

Soon my search and download history was awash in more websites, publishers, blogs, podcasts and online magazines dedicated to African literature and their authors—of various skin tones— than I’d ever be able to get through. Since then, I’ve used Brittle Paper and bookshybooks for ideas about what books to read, and the Okada Books app in addition to the inevitable Amazon to get them.

Some African authors have more of an audience overseas than in their home country. One of many reasons for this is the relative ease of buying their titles in Canada, the US and the UK (and their Amazon equivalents) compared to searching for them in Cameroon, Nigeria or Kenya. As someone who is privileged to visit these places, it’s yet another reason for me to read digitally.

In fact, there’s so many types of books that I could only hope to find online, regardless of where I am. This is especially true if you don’t like spending more money than necessary on books. As just one example, when George Orwell was alive he waived his right to copyright for various socialist groups that wanted to print and circulate 1984, his timeless reflection on how totalitarianism furthers itself. And now decades later, large numbers of Orwell’s books and essays are freely available on the Gutenburg Project.

Or take the category of books that MindLevelUP belongs to. It’s a free, self-published ebook that summarizes aspects of instrumental rationality that computer science student Owen Shen finds useful for himself and others. Evan has been urging me to read it, through both his excited banter about the concepts and the visible effects their application has already had on his life.

While we’re on the topic of Evan, bike travelling with another book lover is a joy. When we’re at our best, we motivate each other into a positive upwards spiral of more time spent reading, at the expense of vapid internet scrolling. And bike travelling doesn’t even have a monopoly on that—just living with another book lover, in a tent or otherwise, is something I’m very grateful for.

Reading together on a train in Kazakhstan

Funny that after all this talk of reading digitally, what catalyzed this blog post is the three paper books I’ve been hanging onto after finishing them. Two are from the Africa Writer’s Series, now defunct after publishing over two hundred titles before, during and after various African countries fought for, found and faced their independence. Many of the books in AWS are difficult to find, irrespective of the medium you read in. A happy exception to this are the nine AWS titles currently available on Okada Books, the app I mentioned above.

I wrote this post because I was feeling the type of love towards these books that sometimes feels sad. Even though I found them, like treasures, at a second-hand bookshop in Namibia, they will be culled like any possession we aren’t using. I’m afraid I’ll forget their particular words and beautiful sentences, the names of their characters. I fear their affect on me will diminish and this is based on personal experience. Much of what I read I forget, and that’s true for both the facts and the feelings.

Evan licking powder medicine off of the back of a paperback book in our tent in Angola
A paper book’s usefulness for swallowing powdered medicine is not enough to save it from the cull

To remember more of what we read, Farnam Street suggests taking notes (among other strategies). My initial efforts in this direction were unrealistically zealous for a beginner, and for a time reading felt daunting, like a chore. I backed off a bit, and remembered why I wanted to take notes: not to become an expert book reviewer, but to remember more of what I read. To keep the love longer.

So in that spirit I’ll end with a little note to myself, like a post-it note on the fridge I don’t have or a page in the paper journal I don’t own (that, too, is now digital):

Megan, you were lucky to find Mhudi, by Sol T. Plaatje, by chance. It was cheap, it had the orange AWS cover you thought looked cool, but you were also influenced by the effusive reviews on the back cover. You thought Bessie Head was maybe being dramatic when she wrote:

“When I first read this beautiful book, I was absolutely in despair. I needed to copy the whole book out by hand so as to keep it with me. It is more than a classic; there is just no book on earth like it. All the stature and grandeur of the writer are in it.”

But after reading Mhudi, you understood Bessie better. Mind you, this article about Bessie Head’s life also helped you empathize with her outsized emotions.

an open page of Sol T. Plaatje's book Mhudi
Taking a loving last look at one of my favourite chapters in Mhudi

On Mhudi’s sand-coloured pages you expected a South African history lesson, written from a perspective not often heard in the early twentieth century, when Plaatje started the long process of trying to get it published. You got your eye-opening history lesson, but also a love story.

You read about Mhudi and Ra-Thaga saving each other in the unforgiving wilderness after their people were massacred. They find purpose in each other. They build a home in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of solitude, and name it Re-Nosi, “We-are-alone”. Eventually life takes them out of their isolation, away from the time when they only had each other for company.

The solitude of the wilderness had become dear to them and they craved for no other company. And now, as in after-life, when things were not particularly to his liking, the demands of society often made Ra-Thaga long for the loneliness of Re-Nosi. Then he would plaintively exclaim:

Speak not to me of the comforts of home,

Tell me of the valleys where the antelopes roam;

Give me my hunting sticks and snares

In the gloaming of the wilderness;

Give back the palmy days of our early felicity

Away from the hurly-burly of your city,

And we’ll be young again — aye:

Sweet Mhudi and I.

While reading about them, you often thought about you and Evan. Sometimes you worried that you were spending too much time together. But Mhudi reminded you that life can change drastically, now or tomorrow. That perhaps you’re banking time now, in your own less-tragic and less-rigid version of Ra-Thaga and Mhudi’s isolation. That these reserves will be drawn upon in times of future need, borne of separations of eight hours a day or much longer.

Maybe there’s one trivial thing about book loving that’s specific to bike travel: even a little paperback that you’ll unlikely find again and really enjoyed will get passed on to another reader, instead of put on a shelf. It takes a little effort, but not too much, to see that as a wonderful thing.

— Me

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