8: The Fate of Literature

Good-bye little books. See you sometime this summer, way across the ocean.

For months we have agonized over what to do with the little Swiss library we have amassed. Our dedication to this matter is all out of proportion to its long-ranging consequences.

We could leave Alice, Tom and Irene (Munro, Boyle and Nemirovsky) here in our hotel library and they would live quiet purposeful lives entertaining the hotel’s English-reading guests for years to come. That is the altruistic thing to do, but we have not done it.

Our attachment to our books is inexplicable even to us, and so while we have whittled away at the lesser authors – who shall remain nameless just in case we should ever meet – Alice, Tom, Irene and the rest of our favored tribe are at this moment heading for Canada via Swiss Post’s slow-boat system. We love our books, but we’re still careful financial managers so they travel economy class, the same as us.

The cost is only 58 Swiss Francs – quite a bit less than the courier bill that was estimated at almost 500 Francs (although that included our full pre-pared-down library so it is not an apples-to-oranges measure). And sadly, if Swiss Post cannot find our little cottage in Ontario, the destination for the books, we left instructions to treat them as ‘abandoned.’ Even checking that box on the Swiss Post export form depressed me a little bit.

Why is it so hard to part with books?

 

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73: Pack-Attack plus Can Luggage Get You Arrested?

Pack-attack: A subset of a traveller’s obsessive-compulsive disorder that leads to repetitive packing-planning sessions.

The second pack-attack of the season struck this week, 73 days out from our trip, which means I got to this task just in the nick of time.

I don’t want to say that I am a packing expert, although I  moved through two hemispheres, five countries, three continents and three provinces. I lose count after that. I’ve packed with an 80-lb. dog in tow, assorted numbers of offspring, and in the range from transporting full households including the kitchen garbage (packed by the moving company without my noticing – they were paid by the pound), to all the way down to what Dave and I could drag while running to catch a train (two suitcases and two carry-ons).

A fraction of our collected goods.

After excavating all our Swiss-worldly goods from our closet, I discovered our possessions have multiplied, possibly while we slept, more likely while I shopped.  I have also made the miserable discovery that our 33 books weighing 15.2 pounds will cost $500 to ship back to Canada, so there will be some serious editing going on over the coming weeks that will enrich our hotel’s library, but cause us some mourning. We love our books, but when it is cheaper to replace them than to post them, well, the typeset is on the wall.

When all was accounted for, it was decided that we need to purchase another suitcase. As if on cue, during Dave’s daily lunch walk, he happened upon a posh black suitcase among a pile of items left at the curb for pick-up. He assures me he did not dumpster-dive. And so he picked it up. It was in fairly good condition and would definitely have weathered one more oceanic crossing, however, this morning it is back at the curb.

Luggage of undetermined origins carries unlimited hazards. My first fear was lice, fleas or other minor lifeforms, but then the larger problem presented itself: What if the thing had ever been used to transport any type of narcotic? A drug dog could easily pick up trace amounts and then where would we be, but in some jail, paying a German-speaking lawyer a huge bulk of money, and all of this through the summer, which, frankly, is the worst time to be incarcerated. Not that I know anything personally about this, but why take the chance?

92: Geneva, Protestants + Catholics and Bookshops

Geneva is garbage, so people say, but we’re not taking anyone’s word for it. We’re going to check it out ourselves today.

We heard the same thing about Zürich and that turned out to be a lovely city with just about everything an urban sightseer could want – including some place with James Joyce’s name inscribed on the wall, but with Germanesque – or was it French? – hieroglyphics so we’re not sure what that was about.

Geneva is home to the CERN collider, some giant underground tunnel where scientists say they are trying to do something with particulate matter, but we suspect it is just a massive public-funded man cave.

It’s also the home of the Red Cross, the U.N., and the location where in 52 B.C. Julius Caesar blew up a bridge. Some say it is also the home of the Reformation, but I thought that was in Germany, but then perhaps it really was all over Europe. Surprisingly, the Reformation was actually intended to reform the Catholic church itself as opposed to dividing it into two Christian entities.

Off the Shelf English Bookshop - Oh glory be!

In what may have been the genesis of Swissness, in 1533 A.D. some Catholic priests tried to incite the citizens to massacre the Protestants, but this being Switzerland (well, not in 1533, but sometime later it would become Switzerland), the Catholics shrugged and said whatever.

That wasn’t the end of it – there was back and forth, a few street riots and so forth  until a treaty was signed that agreed Genevans could choose their own religion, which certainly is in line with what Jesus seemed to teach when he told people to investigate for themselves the claims about him. Seems fair enough. Otherwise this country would have turned out to resemble Iran, religion-optional-wise.

But we are not the type of tourists to troll museums and investigate such lofty things: Dave has discovered Geneva has a bookstore with an English section. It might even be an entire store of English books, which will be something like uncovering the Holy Grail in this land of Languages-Other-Than-English. That will be Stop One of today’s trip.

English bookstores are to be prized. In our time in Spain in the days before Amazon.com and The Book Depository (the real name of a European online book supplier, that seems completely unaware of the American cultural significance of the words “the book depository”) we fed off a tiny airport-store-like bookstore that had one little rotating tower of English books, forcing us to become fans of Maeve Binchy romance books. For some reason Irish authors are popular in Spain. Maybe they do it to poke at the British.

FASCINATING SIDE NOTE: Rick Steves, American travel guru par excellence is well-hated in Switzerland for this fact: Geneva does not even figure into his guidebooks. In fact, Geneva does not appear even in his index, although Lake Geneva does. How’s that for a slap in the face? Yet, Geneva’s tourism office, in very offended tones, says most of their tourists come from America, so even U.S. citizens know to ignore Steves. Sniff. How about that for  travelogue tiff? I will put on my impartial journalism cap and let you know whether to skip this city or not).

SECOND FASCINATING SIDE NOTE: One year ago today we left our Victoria, B.C. home to come here.

99: Off to France + Are French Children Really That Well-Behaved?

Bringing Up Bebe is a book I’m not likely to read. I’m still recovering from my two pregnancies (1979 and 1984) that have left me too tired to open another childrearing book, but a friend asked what I’ve noticed about French children, and what with being just a sneeze away from France, I’ve decided to investigate. Today we’re skipping over the border to spend the afternoon in Mulhouse.

I am too lazy to even provide a link to the book itself, but found an articulate blogger who gives a great synopsis, which, by the way, she has not read yet either.

This is something journalists like to do, judge a book by its buzz.

Shocked? I was, too, the first time I saw a veteran journalist review one of Republican-princess Ann Coulter’s books without actually ever having touched the book itself (he saw it on my desk).

I read the book and reviewed it, which, given that I was in a newsroom, was a hearty display of adherence to investigative journalism, balanced reportage and a bold statement that I did not care a fig what any of my cohorts thought of my reading choices.

This was too much for the other veteran journalist who lacquered over Coulter in his own unencumbered-by-fact and emotionally laden flame-throwing review. The dangers of such were evident early in his piece, which had a glaring gaff easily recognized by anyone who had read the dust-jacket.

Ann Coulter. Polemicist with good hair. Dissed, but not discounted. Do not be fooled by her looks; she is everything you would expect from someone who made it through Cornell's law school.

Newspapers don’t often run two reviews on one book, but the editors may have felt that I was leading the readers astray and needed to institute a course correction, however, lacking in information that correction might have been.

For those gasping in shock, I also read Rev. Jerry Falwell’s autobiography and Betty Friedan’s books cover-to-cover.  Judge me however you like.

Betty Friedan, another polemicist whose illustrious career as a feminist was colored by late-life allegations that she had stayed in an abusive marriage for 22 years, making women everywhere say "What?!" Her ex denied the claims and she put out a half-hearted retraction.

But all of that is not my point. My point is to report on the conduct of French children, and to put some real observation into it. Our French-border-hugging side of Switzerland is packed with Frenchesque families, but this is not good enough. I must see real French children supervised by real French parents.

Important Note: The articulate blogger Joanna Goddard openly admits she has not yet read the book and her post about it is thusly neutral and open-ended. This is technically still fair journalism because she has hidden nothing from her readers and will probably write more once she’s had a chance to see the book (which was on order at the time she first wrote about it).

Second Important Note: The “veteran reporter” of whom I speak is actually a witty fellow who covers his regular beat with vigor, intelligence and all the diligence one hopes for in a journalist. In this incident, his brain was short-circuited by his overwhelming hate of all things politically right-of-centre.

Third Important Note: 99 days to go!

102: The insanity of insomnia

Gargoyles seem entirely plausible in the world of Hans Christian Andersen.

Blame literature. I am a lifelong insomniac, an affliction that in its early stages had me sneaking my lamp into my bedroom closet where I soaked in the company of many a weird book, all so my parents wouldn’t notice the light under the door while I read late into the night. Technically, this makes me less of an insomniac and more of an obsessive-compulsive reader for whom every book is a “page-turner.”

By weird books, I don’t mean anything as terrifying as monster picture books, unless you want to include Wuthering Heights, and other Victorian-era missives, which when you think about it, are monster stories. This explains so much about my knee-jerk expectation that things will always go wrong.  A steady diet of Charles Dickens does terrible things to a pliable mind.

This unusual reading list through my elementary school years had everything to do with poverty – not that my family was down-in-the-dirt poor, but we were too poor for many children’s picture books, if any – I don’t actually remember anything but printed pages full of text until I hit school, but for my older brother’s school reader, Dick and Jane.  Then my younger brothers came along and entered the land of Dr. Seuss’s green eggs and ham, a line of fables that I rejected because none of the Bronte family mentioned green food or if they did it was in the context of having to consume mouldy spoiled fare. So the only books handy to me at home were those that came in my mother’s affordable subscription to a buck-a-month Book of the Month Club, the collection of which was entirely based in The Classics.

These chairs have nothing to do with this blog post. I've included them to offset the nightmarish gargoyle photo, although they do make a great place to read on a warm spring afternoon, and this post does talk about reading, so I take it back about the chairs being out-of-place.

My gloomy outlook did not improve much when the book club acquired a ‘children’s list,’ which included the unwashed version of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales and the Brothers Grimm in a two-in-one book volume where you flipped the book over and upside down on the other side was another whole collection of horror stories crafted especially to keep children in line. My mother thought Black Beauty would be a good read, so she ordered it, ushering in my introduction to the world of animal abuse.

It was handy to get my Grades 11 and 12 reading list out of the way before puberty, but awkward to arrive in Grade One without a clue about even a single Mother Goose rhyme and to have only the most scant familiarity with Little Red Riding Hood. Worse yet, because I was an early reader, every teacher assumed I knew things I did not, such as the alphabet. It was a miserable day in Grade 4 when Miss McMurray laughingly said, “Let’s review the alphabet, although I’m sure you all know it.” The class laughed, because they knew that in fact, I had never been able to recite the alphabet, an educational oversight that branded me for way too many school years.

All of the above is a long way of explaining that I was up past 4 a.m. last night, which is not really that unusual, but it is not a good thing when living in a hotel bachelor suite where my beloved husband is trying to get some sleep because he has to go to work in the morning. I lay in bed and stared into the dark until after 2 a.m., but then had to get up because there is only so much blind-staring I can do at a stretch.

But in 102 days, we will have a bedroom with a door on it, and I will be able to tiptoe into the living room and read away without waking anyone. Bliss.

The Book is Our Friend

No one is lonely as long as books are around.

We are heading into a conundrum. During our time here, we have amassed a small library, one that I assumed would be absorbed into our hotel’s library upon our departure. I may have been wrong about that.

Dave has declared his intention to lug T.C. Boyle, J.D. Salinger, Jennifer Egan, Alice Munro and the rest of the gang to Canada when our time here is done.

That will be some fun, because our Swiss library is gaining weight at a pace that frightens even me. A forest of book stacks is growing on a corner chair as I write this, and paperbacks are forming a mossy sheath over our desk space. Were we to extend our stay here another year, there is no telling if the hotel cleaning staff would be able to find us amid our fecund library.

And yet, we cannot stop our cheesecake-for-the-brain indulgences.  The Swiss ‘buch haus’ community draws us in with not only their English shelves, but also the German and French.

Through some mystery of distribution rights that elude us, German titles of English books appear to predate releases of those same books in North America. By recent example, consider Steven Job’s death, which sent booksellers sprinting to deliver his biography to store shelves. I can report that the same biography was in our little Swiss town’s bookstores – in German – well before the Canadian and U.S. press issued their reviews of same.

And yet, it takes months for Europe to catch up to North American film releases. I cannot explain it except that it suggests Europeans are still avid readers.

But I drift from my point, which is that books are our friends, and come the end of our term here, we’re going to bring as many of them home as we can. “Leave no bound pages behind” will be our motto. I just hope it doesn’t cost more to ship the books than it would to buy replacements for them once back in Canada.

Where our European-bought books will be if Dave has his way.