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Every traveler setting off on a foreign...

<i> Colvin is a Redondo Beach free-lance writer</i>

Every traveler setting off on a foreign journey has been advised to pack light.

So when my wife and I prepared for our first long trip--nine months in Europe, Southeast Asia, Australia and the South Pacific--we tried hard to reduce the weight of our baggage. The choices were difficult, but among the most perplexing were those related to books.

We are readers. Each of us at any time reads several books, two or three daily newspapers and the major magazines. We could no more be happy not reading than not eating.

So what should we take to read? Where would we find new English-language books after we exhausted our supply? How much would they cost? How could we even carry the guidebooks covering all the areas where we were going?

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Wouldn’t we be too busy seeing, experiencing and tasting to stop and read?

Time to Read

Not so. Experienced travelers know that the rhythm of longer trips--those lasting, say, more than four weeks--is often leisurely, leaving plenty of time to lounge with a book on a Thai beach or to stop cycling early to spend an afternoon reading on a Welsh hillside.

It would be impossible to keep up the whirlwind pace of the typical two-week swing through Europe over the long haul of nine months without feeling constantly exhausted and disheartened.

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In addition, many happenings are beyond control and leave gaps ripe to be filled with reading. Unless you are traveling by airplane and rental cars you will use public transportation far more often abroad than you do in the United States.

And Greek ferries don’t always leave on time, even if French trains do. Bus schedules are as unreliable in Indonesia as they are exact in Singapore.

Rainy days, immigration procedures, well-lighted English and Irish pubs and off-season visits to sparsely populated Greek islands all provide good excuses to open a book.

Don’t become so absorbed in your reading that you pass up opportunities to interact with the people. But also don’t forget to take time for yourself.

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For Added Meaning

What you take to read depends upon you, but you might consider fiction or nonfiction books that are related to areas in which you plan to stop.

Nicholas Gage’s “Eleni,” for example, describing in dramatic detail small-town life in Greece during and after World War II, became particularly poignant because we read it while living in a town on a Greek island.

Winston Churchill’s war memoirs gave powerful meaning to the names of the towns we cycled through along the Normandy coast. Reading M. F. K. Fisher in France gave us a much deeper appreciation for the French people’s attachment to good food.

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Also, buy for quantity as well as quality. Carrying one or two large (always paperback) books is easier than keeping track of many thinner volumes. Besides, with a big book you’re less likely to run out of reading material when you’re unable to get more.

We discovered that with “Lonesome Dove,” Larry McMurtry’s 900-page saga of the twilight years of two mythic Western heroes taking the first herd of Texas cattle north to Montana.

Because new books are expensive in Ireland, often double or triple their cost in the United States, we did not buy any. We were cycling along the western coast south of Galway, and encountered no towns large enough to support a used bookstore.

Sharing a Book

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Although we both cherish books and normally cannot bear to part with them, let alone damage them deliberately, I tore “Lonesome Dove” into two chunks. She read the first half while I continued with the second half.

Subsequently I tore off 100 pages at various times, and passed them on to her until we were both finished. Not only did we save on weight but we were sustained until we finally found a used bookstore in Killarney.

The idea of not damaging books also applies to guidebooks. Some guidebooks cover so much territory that they are unwieldy. The “Let’s Go” budget travel guides, for example, are huge compendiums with detailed chapters on each country.

But since we were only traveling to some of the countries covered in the guide, we were unwilling to lug along the entire volume. Into our luggage went the chapters on the countries we planned to visit. The rest, looking rather deflated, remained home on the shelf.

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Another method of lightening the load of guidebooks on long trips is to use the mails. You or friends can send ahead the books you need to a post office address or a friend at your destination. Most American Express offices, however, won’t accept packages. They also charge a fee if you’re not a card holder.

You also can use the mails to ship books home. Or you can patronize used bookstores as you go, trading books you’ve read for ones you haven’t. Used bookstores are musts for readers on tight budgets, because new books in English are expensive in most countries.

In Athens, for example, we sought to buy a guidebook on Southeast Asia, our next destination.

“Fodor’s Guide to Southeast Asia” was selling for the equivalent of about $45, more than four times what it would cost in the United States.

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In Thailand we bought the Lonely Planet series “Survival Kit for Southeast Asia.” It was a third as expensive, but still more than it would have been in the United States.

Annotated Version

In Sydney we sought a copy of the Lonely Planet volume on New Zealand. New, it would have cost more than $15. But we walked down Pitt Street, where there are more than a dozen used bookstores within 10 blocks and found the same volume.

We traded two books plus less than $5 for it. We even had the benefit of the annotations about housing and meals made by a previous owner.

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You will find used bookstores in the smallest towns visited regularly by the young Australians, New Zealanders and English who travel in Asia and India in great numbers. They have left behind a vigorous market for English-language books.

That is the only explanation possible for the five used bookstores in the main town on the small island of Koh Samui, several miles off Thailand’s coast. It’s a popular destination for budget travelers because of its wide, white-sand beaches, great cheap food and accommodating people.

One such store was tucked into a narrow alley off a sewerless street. The air was filled with the aromas of chicken and pungent chile peppers frying over the slightly sweet, smoky fires of coconut husks.

The store had a dirt floor and many books arrayed neatly on sagging plank shelves. Most of the books were by such authors as Sidney Sheldon, Jackie Collins, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Stephen King, Jeffrey Archer, Jean Auel and Harold Robbins, all of whom are hits in many languages.

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A Diverse Selection

But it also had a diverse selection of less popular books. After browsing for a while, a battered copy of Wallace Stegner’s “Angle of Repose” caught my eye.

I’ve wanted to “Angle” as long as I’ve been in California, so I chose it immediately even though it was in such bad shape that it was in a small plastic sleeve to keep its yellowed pages together.

The cover price had been $1.50 when it was published in 1972. But 16 years later we paid 65 baht, or $2.75, even though it was falling apart and we also were trading in “Good as Gold” by Joseph Heller.

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Who had brought this book here? How many had read it to batter it so? Heller’s book, also quite worn, had been with us since Athens.

From the imprints on the cover we could trace its retail history from the United States to Jerusalem, and now it was in Koh Samui, Thailand.

Who knows where it may go from there? What seems likely, however, is that the book, like millions of others, will continue to circulate from country to country in the luggage of travelers as they, like us, seek respite from the road with a comforting word from home.


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