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One Encounter: On Packing Two Bags for Mexico

In this feature writers explore the personal side of encountering works of art

This was the task before me: place all the books I would want to read for a year into a shoulder bag. Pull out roughly 40 elect from some seven years worth of dedicated purchasing.
 
Why was I doing this to myself? The answer is quite simple. I was moving to Mexico for a year, and I expected that I’d need to bring enough to read. My plan was to take two bags with me—one was for my clothes, shoes, toiletries, laptop . . . basically everything that makes life livable. The other bag was for my books.

 
What impossible calculations this act required. In normal circumstances, choosing my next book is a wonderfully difficult experience. As I come down the home stretch on whatever I’m reading I begin to feel the kind of the anticipation I used to feel when I counted down the days to my birthday. I sneak glances at my shelves, imagining the possibilities and trying to release some of my energy. When the actual moment arrives, I stand and weigh and debate. The decision is a momentous one. Sometimes it can drag on for so long that I need to take a breather. Sometimes I consult my girlfriend for advice. Sometimes I just can’t do it, so I let myself pick two.

But now I was in entirely new territory: I wasn’t simply choosing the next book for this week; I was choosing every next book for at least a year. It is at moments like this, moments of obvious absurdity, that I naturally rebel. How can you expect me to make a choice like this? It’s impossible!

So as I stood before my empty bag and pondered the bookshelves arrayed around me, I did the only thing I could do: I abandoned reason and simply started to strip down volumes as quickly as I saw them.

Mulligan Stew—I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while.
The Recognitions—this monster will keep me busy.
War and Peace—likewise.
The Moviegoer—why not?

What a joyful experience. All that order reduced to mayhem, all my patience scattered by ecstasy. At first I gently set them down, and then I dropped them with a thump, and then I was throwing them across the room.

I managed to pick quite a few books this way, but then, as it seems must always happen, my energies calmed and rationality snuck up to assert its grip. A process that might have taken 30 minutes stretched on all afternoon, and when my bag was full the misgivings began. Is Dance! Dance! Dance! worth the space it’s taking up? I could fit two others instead, and I’ve read a lot of Murakami lately . . .

At last there lay my final cut. Looking at them now from my apartment here in Puebla, I can see that most conspicuous among them are the hefty tomes. Numerous and bunched together, they stand out and dominate the books around them. Among them are the aforementioned Gaddis and Tolstoy, as well as Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, Don Quixote, The Goldbug Variations, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. To my eyes they look wonderfully regal, like dignified and corpulent gourmands. I can only feel that I’ve let them down.

Big books have always occupied a special place in my imagination: lacking any sense of proportion, they simply feel ponderous, like inexhaustible, thick slags of raw culture that I can wallow in for hours on end. One day, I believe, when I’m very old and all tired out by life I’ll find myself somewhere with a stack of the thickest books I can think of, and I will love it. Unfortunately, I don’t know if I’m yet ready for this pleasure. I’ve found I lack the discipline to love these big books as I think I should. There’s so much to read, after all, and new titles constantly divert my attention. But one year ago, as I stood over my bag of newly packed books, I envisioned Mexico as being different. It would be the ultimate big read—time, finally, for everything.

What did everything consist in? Well, the already mentioned titles of course and then quite a bit more: Pan by Knut Hamsum, Vollmann’s Rainbow Stories, two volumes of Mishima’s Sea of Tranquility tetralogy, a weighty, somewhat philosophical volume on the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski, Hopscotch, Sebald’s take on the nature of destruction, Malaparte’s bleak World War II novel, Kaputt, the best third of Italo Svevo’s output, Queneau’s mature first novel, Witch Grass, and his overly comic oddity, We Always Treat Women Too Well, Murdoch’s 1978 Booker winner The Sea, the Sea, and many others in which I put so many hopes.

I had picked my 40 for Mexico, and in a few short days we were off.

Going through security at the airport, I felt more ludicrous than usual. What mirth would be had over my bag full of books? Was it possible that someone would intuit malice in a traveler with 50 pounds of literature strapped to his back? It’s not normal to walk around with that many books. Minutes out of Mexico City, I read the Mexican customs declaration carefully. They wanted to know if I was bringing in more than one camera, more than one computer. There were limits to how much cash money I could have on me. Fruit preserves were strictly verboten. But books? Ha! Take in as many books as you wish, you silly gringo!

Exiting the airport, it dawned on me that when I boarded my plane to Mexico City I had been forced to leave behind everything that I didn’t absolutely need. My plan was to travel as light as possible, and I had been ruthless in only taking what I considered perfectly essential. When I packed those two bags, I decided what was at the core of my personality, what parts of my life could not be removed without changing me into a different person. For me, the most important holdover was books. They were roots that I could put down anywhere, ways to remember what I was about when the thrill of seeing new places and encountering a new culture gave way to the longings and dislocation of a foreign country.

The first book I read in Mexico was Michael Martone’s fake travel guide The Blue Guide to Indiana. In a case of life giving art the true audacity of genius, the book comes with a court-mandated warning sticker on its cover notifying me that this is, in fact, not a guide to Indiana but a work of fiction. Even Martone was not quick enough to think up this capstone to his small masterpiece—or maybe he just figured his book was obviously not a real travel guide: the destinations include a pipeline for mayonnaise, the ruins of Rome, and the Bill Blass Birthplace. But even when he was writing about the state’s mosquito hatcheries, Martone’s tack-sharp, skewed reproductions of Americana felt real enough to make me not miss home so much.

The Musée de Bob Ross
Muncie

Housed in the converted and renovated Ball Brothers Department store in downtown Muncie, The Musée de Bob Ross is home to the world’s largest collection of works by the late master, Bob Ross. Over eight thousand paintings are in inventory, while several hundred are displayed at any one time in the museum’s twelve galleries. The characteristic landscapes and seascapes (most of them painted live while being taped during his widely syndicated television show produced by Muncie Public TV) are displayed chronologically to give the visitor a sense of Ross’s progression of technique and his many chromatic periods.

In my first weeks in Mexico, I quickly discovered the benefits to radically paring down one’s shelves. Books that in America I had passed over again and again, books that I had simply learned not to see, these books finally got their turn because now there was nothing to pass them over for. And they were so good. If I had but spared a day for E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, I could have been reading so much better all this time. Why did I continually let that ugly cover frighten me away from Katherine Anne Porter’s masterful novellas? Why, considering all the mediocrities I’d read in the meantime, had it taken me so long to finally get to Sorrentino’s simmering, hilarious rage in Mulligan Stew?

After a couple of months I had hit my stride. The shorter reads had given way to the bigger fellows, and I think I might have been settling in for something unprecedented. It was reading minus the cloud of debris that had come to taint the experience for me; I was reading, perhaps, as I had done years before I somehow become a “serious” reader.

It didn’t hurt that I had such nice environs to read in. Cafe culture is quite present in Mexico, and the many Poblano cafes that serve midnight black americanos brewed fresh with dark-roasted beans from Coatepec, Chiapas, and Oaxaca quickly came to recognize this gringo. On the days I didn’t feel like a coffee I could simply sit out on the sunny zócalo, as Puebla offers a sunny 70 in the afternoon virtually year-round.

As I hit my reading stride in Puebla, I began to notice something: in Mexico I was reading a certain kind of book, a kind that I had not been reading in America. I developed a hunch, and one day I went to my books to check it. I eyeballed them lined up against the wall, and then I went through copyright pages. My hunch was correct.

In retrospect, it has become clear that when I packed my bag of books I had unknowingly tried to cure myself of a literary malady I didn’t know infected me; I had contracted this malady at some point over the past few years, but I had mistakenly taken the symptoms for signs of normalcy, progress even. My malady was a version of a much larger disease, the one that makes Americans love, inordinately, new things—new iPhones (and the latest iPod), new flat-screen TVs, new clothes, new cars, new shoes, new furniture. New news 24 hours a day. New places to eat, new movies to watch. New everything. I had always prided myself on keeping aloof of America’s passion for new things, but it was only when I came to Mexico that I realized the truth: I had gotten caught up in the ridiculous task of keeping up with the avalanche of new books.

For years now my reading had been dramatically weighted toward the new, toward books being touted in the press, authors visiting local bookstores, titles passed along by eager publicists. And all those old books, those wonders that had passed the test of time for decade after decade, those classics that had kept delighting the very best readers, from James and Eliot and Woolf to Ozick and Gass and Updike—in short, the very DNA writhing at the center of contemporary literature. Why, those were the titles I could never get to.

I looked again at my books lined up against the wall. Scarcely any were published in the last 20 years. The majority were well over 30 years old. Had I unconsciously picked these books for a reason?

Perhaps I had.

Whatever it was, I was happy with how things had turned out. As far as I was concerned, I could remain the whole rest of the year in this bubble of old literature and never come out. That would be fine by me.

I could, but I didn’t. What happened instead was, like some law of nature, I began to accumulate books, and more often than not, they were new.

Life as an ex-pat has taught me many things, but one of the most surprising discoveries I have made in Mexico is that no matter where I find myself on this planet, I will accumulate books. It is simply what I do. I can depend on it like I can depend on gravity to keep me from flying off into space.

As it turns out, Mexico isn’t the most challenging place to find English-language books. It’s not necessarily easy, but nor is it difficult. In certain self-styled artisan cities frequented by Americans, there are whole stores dedicated to books in English. In cities of even a modest size it is not uncommon to find an enviously large complement of second-hand-book shops filling nooks and crannies that on first glance appear empty, and usually such shops will contain a stack of moldy English-language books (unfortunately, in a couple I have found them in the back under a shelf of front-facing girlie mags). These stores were always a treat for me; as most bibliophiles will understand, once you’ve gone long enough without buying a book in a real bookstore, a copy of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine mixed in with pop bestsellers and self-help primers feels like quite the find. (At least, it was exciting for me when I found it.) Then, too, there are book exchanges. Not counting bodice-rippers, the undisputed king here is Hemingway (followed at a distance by Paul Theroux), but there are also many fine oddities: a 5-year-old issue of ZYZZVA, the original UK hardcover of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a copy of Quetzalcoatl by D.H. Lawrence.

Add to all this the well-wishing friends, the family members, the publicists and the publishers; they all braved the notoriously sticky fingers of the Mexican post office. Either these rumors are greatly exaggerated or no one wanted my libros—one way or another, though my parcels occasionally bore the telltale slash of a custom’s knife, to my knowledge everything made its way through.

So it went. To savage a perfectly good quote: A book here, a book there, pretty soon you’re talking about serious stacks. My original 40 were now multiplied many times over, and I think I was worse for it. Far too many books. Far too much to divert my attention. As it once had been, the newly published ones began to exert their powerful seduction, and again my classics languished. Sorry Miss Austen. Maybe in a few, my good Iris Murdoch. Ahh, Mr. Gaddis, I can’t possibly get bogged down in your monstrosity right now—there’s too much else to read!

As I finish up my year here this is where I stand: First, and most important, I see my consumption for what it is. Second, I know I can’t simply get away from the books. And third, I have somehow managed to grant myself a few precious months in which I could see things from the outside.

Things are better these days. The matter of new versus old has turned into a challenge, and to challenges I usually respond well. But I am aware that reading in my tiny Mexican apartment is just a prelude. Soon I’ll be back in the United States. There will be bookstores. There will be all the parcels that have accumulated in my absence. There will be the swollen bags of books I left behind. The new books wait for me like eyes gleaming in the shadows.

____
Scott Esposito is a writer living in Mexico. He hosts the literary blog Conversational Reading and edits The Quarterly Conversation. His writing on literature can also be read in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Francisco Chronicle, Small Spiral Notebook, Rain Taxi, The Chattahoochee Review, and others.

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