WHAT IS THE MOST useful thing to have with you when travelling? Comfortable shoes? A fancy piece of luggage? A clever all-weather jacket? A camera-phone with a fully computerised and GPS-enabled micro-kettle? Or, a book.
Yes, a book. And not an e-book reader, either, but an actual ink-on-dead-trees, words-on-paper book. The kind of lo-tech, hi-concept artefact that’s been virtually unchanged since the days of monks scribing and illuminating away whilst perched on miserable rocks in the Atlantic.
What makes a book a travel essential? Oh, let me count the ways.
Firstly, and obviously, there’s having something to read whilst you’re on the move. Or, more importantly, when you’re not. An engrossing book can be the surest way to escape the boredom of waiting around that goes with travel.
But there’s more. Books are formidable artillery in the inevitable battles with bureaucracy. That prolonged wait to get a visa extension in Tehran, the problem to be sorted out at an African frontier, or being taken in for “a few questions” in Bulgaria? Calmly sitting down and taking out a book – preferably a thick book with small type – not only passes the time but is horribly unsettling to policemen, soldiers and officials alike. They are used to their victims being either impatient or worried. With your head in a book you look unconcerned, and ready for the long haul.
Take out Moby Dick in many a nation’s governmental offices, settle yourself comfortably and you’ll have hardly read a few paragraphs beyond “Call me Ishmael”, before somebody in authority will be looking disconcerted and wondering just how quickly they can get you out the door. Or, if six hours later you’ve read as far as Chapter LXIV, “The Whale as a Dish”, and are still being ignored, well, at least you’ll have passed a pleasant day.
Books can do a lot more than merely pass the time when travelling, though. It’s a common problem for travellers to be caught with exploding bowels and without toilet paper. And it’s a common solution to desperately speed-read through a book, tearing pages out as one goes (so to speak) to use for a more basic function. An e-book is less practical under these circumstances.
Books, too, can act as the spark to ignite holiday romances. Spotting the familiar cover and title of a favourite – or even recognised-enough-to-bluff – volume in the hands of an interesting-looking stranger is excuse enough for conversation. The anonymity of a Kindle’s content doesn’t offer the same opportunities.
A book can be used to light a fire. You can hide things inside them. They make an effective shield against unwanted conversationalists on planes and buses. I’d imagine that there’s some esoteric oriental martial art — bookdo, perhaps? — that’s all about twirling, swinging and thrusting a paperback copy of 50 Shades of Grey with such velocity and force that it becomes a mortal weapon.
Above all, a book that accompanies you on a long trip – assuming that it escapes being used as loo paper, burnt, given away as a lover’s gift or buried deep in the chest of a would-be mugger – becomes a true memento of your travels. The torn cover, wine stains, margin notes, squashed mosquitoes – did I mention a book’s qualities for committing insecticide? – and the names and cryptic messages scribbled across blank pages tell a story equal to that in the book itself.
But, if the most useful thing to carry when travelling is a book, then surely many books would be even better, Apart from the actual carrying part, obviously. Or maybe the best thing to do is to take one impressive real book for all the reasons above, and a discreet e-book reader to carry the whole library of other books you’d like to have with you as well.