This year, between preparing for a long trip to Scandinavia and catching up after I returned, not to mention my journey in between, I missed my annual spring cleaning. This past weekend I began a belated book-dusting campaign in my office. First, though, the wall behind the bookcases had to be painted a luscious shade of persimmon red. All the books were taken off the shelves, dusted, and put back. Not without a lot of paging through their pleasures and some nostalgic sighing.
Most of the books in my office have to do with writing, editing, and nonfiction (the novels, seafaring, gardening, and art books are in long bookcases in the attic rooms), and most of the nonfiction is travel. Even though I’ve been trying to force myself to winnow my collections, it’s hard to give up the travel books, even the guidebooks that are hopelessly out of date. My Rough Guide to Eastern Europe from twenty years ago promises that “the stereotype of a uniform Eastern Bloc is swiftly demolished.” I spent a couple of months in 1992 in Hungary and Transylvania, poking around, in order to write my Cassandra Reilly mystery, Trouble in Transylvania, which deals in part with orphans and adoption. Romania was barely out of its long isolation and still reeling from decades under the dictator Ceausecu. All that has utterly changed. The guidebook remains a moment caught in time.
I have two shelves of books on Ireland and England and the same number on Spain and Italy, all collected during the years when I traveled more frequently in those countries. Now that Scandinavia has overtaken my interest (there are eighteen feet of much-loved books about Denmark, Sweden, and Norway) and my entire travel budget, other places in the world have receded as possibilities. But handling my travel library for an entire day brought back not only the memory of places I’ve loved but also the places I’ve never been. Some of my favorite books, in fact, are about countries and continents that I’m unlikely to ever visit––Siberia, for instance, (In Siberia by Colin Thubron) or Afghanistan (The Places in Between by Rory Stewart).
The wall is red, the books are back on the shelves, but my world is larger for having looked at my collection of travel books. I keep looking away from the computer, over my shoulder, and dreaming of far-away places.