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Books in My Baggage!

By (November 13, 2014) No Comment

Ink Chorus

books in my baggageOur book today is Lawrence Clark Powell’s utterly delightful 1960 book Books in My Baggage, one of his follow-ups to his very popular earlier work of literary musings, A Passion for Books. I thought about this one lately because I’ve been low-grade fuming for a while now about the purblind convservatism of that TLS squib by Michael Dirda on the now-vanishing old dilemma of packing books for journies – of carrying books in your baggage, in other words.

Of course, back when Powell was writing his essays and book-columns, there was no choice but to lug around books. I remember those days well, when the traveler had to anticipate not only changes in carrying capacity, not only the book-buying potential of various destinations (going to Berlin? No problem. Going to the great Negev? Problem), but also changes in his own reading moods – will I feel like this Muriel Spark novel when I’m sweltering in tropical humidity? Will this new translation of Dostoevsky seem every bit as appealing if read on an endless and miserably uncomfortable train-ride across Russia?

I usually avoided such questions by bringing along only sure-fire all-tested favorites, books (I wrote about them here) that never failed me. And clearly other travelers have taken the same approach, as Powell notes:

A good bookman regards books as part of his essential traveling equipment. When Lawrence of Arabia was in the desert during World War I, two books – The Oxford Book of English Verse and Malory’s Morte d’Arthur – stayed in his baggage with bread and water, when all else was abandoned. A good book speaks to one in these words, “Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side.” And the wise man listens.

Powell himself joyfully seconded the line he loved from Cobden-Sanderson’s journal: Sweet God, souse me in literature! – and he read widely and enthusiastically, as these collected pieces show. He can write about Casanova or D. H. Lawrence or collectible editions of Whitman and Melville just as infectiously has he can write about Ivan Bunin, Lawrence Durrell, or the literature of his beloved American Southwest. He constantly has two or three books ‘going, and he can’t do without the internal conversation they constitute; as he writes at the beginning of Books in My Baggage, “This is a book about books, about collecting and reading and living withlucy reading books in my baggage books, at home and abroad, of love for a single volume and lust for eighty thousand”:

It is not about books or libraries in the historical or technical sense, but rather is an effort to see life through books, with the multiple vision reading gives a man. All my life I have traveled with books in my baggage, gone with books at my side, and now in my fifties I find them as necessary as food and air.

Powell died in 2001 and never really had much personal truck with the e-readers Dirda scorns. Re-reading Books in My Baggage (discovered, needless to say, at the Brattle Bookshop) made me wonder what Powell would have thought of the idea of carrying around 200 books on a thin metal slate in his coat pocket instead of 20 printed volumes requiring their own separate satchel. I’d like to think he’d have recognized it for the wonder it is – although maybe he’d have been a bit wistful over the fact that Books in My Baggage would be a very different book if written in 2014. To the best of my knowledge, nobody’s yet written Around the World with my Kindle. Maybe somebody should.