Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Library of Nomadics

I reserve one shelf of my library, which I am packing up to move, for books on nomadics: the study of rootlessness, of travel, of being on the road, or pilgrimage and journey.

I first became conscious of the importance of this area of study to my life when I read Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines for the first time. In that book, there are sections titled "From the Notebooks," which are compilations and collections of various notes, thoughts, and reminiscences on the idea of being a nomad. The other Chatwin book that lives on this shelf is Anatomy of Restlessness: Selected Writings 1969-1989. This volume collects various neglected and previously unpublished pieces; reading through them, you can see that his abiding themes—which are my own, as reflected in the volumes on this shelf of my library—of roots and rootlessness, exile, the exotic, possession and renunciation. Bruce Chatwin's writings and collected thoughts on nomadics set the tone for this area of study; some of his writings directly reflect my own experiences and attitudes. I am not sure if the books shaped me, or if I discovered Chatwin's writings after I had already started down my own roads. I can find anecdotal evidence from my life that could argue the point either way.

My own lifetime of being a global nomad, comfortable almost everywhere I've been, comes from my childhood living abroad, when "coming home" did not to me at that age mean returning to the country where I was born. That early sense of dislocation has left me without that sense of home-place that most of my friends have: they know where they were born, and where they grew up was where they were born, and they have memories of a childhood spent in a home-town. I know where I was born, but I don't have a home-town; I never have, except for those I've temporarily made for myself. I wonder if buying a house, and becoming a homeowner for the first time in my life, will change my perspective on this. One of my new home's purposes will be, after all, a home-base from which I will continue to travel, and spend long periods of time on the road.

Other titles on this shelf of books about nomadics—not all of these writers would see these titles as related in the same way I do, i suspect—include:

Jim Harrison: The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a roving gourmand

William Least Heat Moon: Blue HIghways and his other books

Larry McMurtry: Roads

Alan Booth: The Roads to Sata: A 2000-mile walk through Japan

Darrell Yates Rist: Heartlands: A gay man's odyssey across America

Rebecca Solnit: Wanderlust: A history of walking

Juliette de Bairacli Levy: Traveler's Joy: A personal guide to the wonders and pleasures of gypsy and nomad living

Charless Nicholl, editor: Journeys: An anthology

Paul Therous: Fresh-Air Fiend

Marc Robinson, editor: Altogether Elsewhere: Writers on exile

John Julius Norwich, editor: A Taste for Travel: An anthology

Robert W. Harris: Gypsying After 40: A guide to adventure and self-discovery

Gary Paulsen: Zero to Sixty: The motorcycle journey of a lifetime

Of course, that also brings up Robert Pirsig's classic Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is peripherally connected to all this. As a friend of mine once pointed out, I do some of my best thinking when I'm on the road.

I should note that most of my walking (Colin Fletcher) and camping guides are on the Outdoors/Nature Writing shelf in my library, which is next to the Nomadics shelf, and has some overlap with it. But the emphasis is different in each case.

Paradoxically, writing about travel is writing about place: writing about journeying is writing about a search for home. This creates some of the dramatic tension that great travel writing carries. The theme or rootlessness is best served by reflecting on its opposite.

So this library shelf also includes:

Mary N. MacDonald, editor: Experiences of Place

Least Heat Moon's PrairyEarth

Linda Hasselstrom, Gaydell Collier, Nancy Curtis, editors: Leaning Into the Wind: Women write from the heart of the West

Gretel Erlich: The Solace of Open Spaces and her other books about places

Sven Lindquist: Desert Divers

Another related genre that creeps on and off this particular shelf is the Japanese genre of zuihitsu and travel-diary. Basho's Narrow Road to the Interior is a classic of this genre. And there are English-language descendants, including some poetic journals. The classic book of this type, though, is Lady Sarashina's Heian-period diary:

As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams: Recollections of a woman in eleventh-century Japan (trans. by ivan Morris)

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