Essay: The Book List

the new quarterly 2

published in TNQ Spring 2010 Issue 114

When I recently dug out this list of books I read, I was reminded of the turbulent years of my late twenties and early thirties, from 1987 to the mid 1990s. I had spent half of them backpacking, seeking out the beauties of the world. Highlights included Tibet’s Potala Palace, the ancient village with its winding streets clustered at the palace base, the Blue Mountains of Belize with their tangy jungle air and lacy mists rising up steep canyon cliffs, and, off the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan peninsula, the turquoise water which inspired me to write this in my journal in March, 1991:

And the surf, glorious, inscrutable, powerful beyond measure, rolls and pounds. This ebb and flow of sound, the rumble and grumble, the alternating swish and bubbly chatter of the undertow, the complete and utter harmony of the ocean as it meets the sand, reminding us of the endless dialogue, balance, between what is land, what is water, what is known, what is unknown, what is us, what is other, what is now, what is potential, what is safety, what is danger, what we humans are and what we are not.

I found beauty and adventure and so much more on those travels: the world revealed its underbelly. I can still see that pig’s body left to decompose slowly on a Chinese roadside, its head perfectly intact, its body flattened by a truck. Or the families living in cardboard boxes on the streets of Hong Kong, their skin and clothes blackened by soot and grime. Or the barefoot porters hauling stacked crates of Coca Cola on their heads up steep footpaths in the remotest Himalayas. Or Bangkok and the western men who flocked there for what is now called “sex tourism”.

Those years were pivotal, mind-bending years. The AIDS epidemic was getting underway. The internet was right around the corner. Lonely Planet was publishing its first travel guides, including the first Asia guide in 1981. George Bush Sr. was in office and the Gulf War was imminent.

In bars in Antigua, Guatemala, drinking copiously with other travelers, I began to lend my voice to the fugue of ideas and opinion. When we could find a TV with satellite, we’d huddle around watching CNN news. I remember our outrage—and the outrage of the Guatemalans around us—as we listened to the new, painfully ironic terminology coming out of that first Gulf was: smart bombs, intelligent bombs. It was during this time that my beliefs and ideas opened to scrutiny, debate, and revision; when in the company of savvy international backpackers, there was no room for self-satisfied, North American stupour.

Eventually, these forays away from home shook loose my identity. When my then-boyfriend and I returned to Canada after a full year abroad, we felt marooned. I’d grown to love Asia, the food and faster pace of life, Eastern traditions and social customs. North America, with its consumerism and individualism, its link to what we then called “the military industrial complex”, suddenly looked misguided and one-dimensional. A gap opened: who had I become? what ideologies could I now embrace? where did I belong?

The terms “global consciousness” and “global citizen” had not yet been coined, and there were no organizations in which we could see ourselves reflected. We’d become cultural orphans. For a spell we drank more and kept the push on for sexual freedoms. Self-destruction—or the fear of self-destruction—never seemed far off. Another journal entry from July, 1988:

All human communication is frustrating and inadequate. Like the canvas skin of this tent, a flimsy covering protects us from the contents inside and the contents outside. How we struggle to appear, to seem, the say the right thing, as if our expression is a bungled attempt to paddle upstream with half an oar. I am lost to the currents, feeling their eternal drag, knowing there lurks in the depths so much more than the surface can ever hold. How I wish to be immersed in that current. I think I know how Virginia Woolf felt. I understand why she simply walked into a river.

As for the book list I compiled during two tumultuous years, it was a comforting ritual. Recording those entries gave me a vague notion of posterity: at some date in the future the list might prove interesting as a record of my earnest inner search. Throughout my life I’d hooked myself into fictional narrative for respite or escape, but now I was reading for cogency, clarity and healing. Reading had taken on a whole new meaning.

the book list 2

It was during this period that I began to seek out the voices of women writers and feminist scholars, to examine my beliefs about who I was and how I thought. Feminists were dissecting every facet of women’s lives, laying bare power structures and hidden oppression. And I was hungry to know! Gradually, my consciousness was raised, but not without plenty of suffering and rage at women’s lot. What I put my then-boyfriend through! One roller-coaster ride after another. That poor guy. I should have married him; he hung in there through it all with patience and with love.

As I read and admired those women writers, I began to entertain the idea that I could add my voice to theirs, become a writer myself, move beyond the journals and postcard vignettes I was sending home. From my journal dated January 1991:

This book I am reading, Anais Nin’s journal, has rekindled in me some important aspects of myself. [In] the narrative of her talks with Dr. Otto Rank I see parallels. It’s as if the doctor talks to me when he tells her that the neurotic is a creator frustrated…the energy which could have been put towards creation is…deformed, turned inwards like twisted roots, tangling the personality underneath…I don’t want to be like that.

True, it would take another ten years before I placed myself in a chair and began to write, but the genesis of that desire began during the time encompassed by my list of books read. Funny to think of it now, how many times in one country or another I told some stranger that I was a writer when I really wasn’t; I had to try on the writer’s cap many times before it fit.

Then, with as little deliberation as when I began compiling the list, I stopped. I had been so fastidious about keeping a record. But one day I discovered that the time between entries was growing longer and longer. I was losing interest. The ritual began to seem silly, or perhaps sentimental, and I could no longer see the point. So I stopped, put the Steno pad in a box, and forgot about it.

I carted that box around for over twenty years. Now, when I flip through the list’s yellowing pages, it feels like a dear old friend, a friend with a truncated, cryptic memory, somebody with whom I once loved to travel.

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3 thoughts on “Essay: The Book List

  1. It must’ve been so different to backpack in the late 80s and early 90s, pre-Internet. I imagine it would’ve been both difficult in some ways but also nice to REALLY feel cut away from home life! Great write up 🙂

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    • Thanks very much for commenting. Sometimes it feels like I’m just talking to myself here. haha. Yes, things were very different for sure. Maybe I should write a piece on this topic, now that you mention it.
      Not only no internet, but also just film photography so you had to carry all your film cannisters and protect them from the elements and wait until you could get somewhere to have them developed. And given these restrictions, you were careful about how many shots you took.

      Like

      • Haha no problem at all Shellie. Sounds so different to now when everyone takes a billion photos and then backs them up automatically online! Wow hadn’t even thought about that aspect. Definitely would be cool to hear more about this topic 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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