If reading has been as natural to you as breathing during your life, then you might have acquired an e-reader along the way. It occurred to me recently, as my husband prepared for a short stay in Afghanistan, that e-readers have changed the elusive challenge of book finding in foreign countries. The benefit is that you can load up your e-reader with a panoply of reading choices without additional weight. The downside of the e-reader is the loss of the unexpected delight of discovering reading possibilities in the remotest of places. The quest for a good read when you are Somewhere Else has been a regular pursuit for our family.
It was during an ill-fated trip to a tiny island off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in 1972 that I made my first find. I’m not sure what Isla Mujeres is like now, but in 1972 it was a sleepy sandbar with good local restaurants, fantastic scuba diving and snorkeling, hippies renting and sleeping in hammocks, and no bookstore–for that matter, no store of any size. Aside from the wonders of the ocean and the questionable delights of the bars, there was no entertainment to be had. I had read all the books that fit in my suitcase and began my quest for anything literary. It was in a closet-sized store that I stumbled upon a used and discarded Agatha Christie mystery. I had never been interested in mysteries, but “any port in a storm” became my personal bibliophilic motto on that trip. I discovered I did enjoy Agatha Christie, and thus began my introduction to authors previously passed over but now embraced as oases of reading pleasure.
Our family has since made many trips, and all four of us have “foraged” for good reading. We lived in Islamabad, Pakistan for almost two years in the late 1990s, and it was then that we honed our skills at book garnering. We could easily cope with eating different foods and wearing Pakistani clothing, but reading Urdu was something we could not do. There were few bookstores with limited English language choices. We traded books with friends, shamelessly encouraged guests to leave behind reading material, and wrote of our plight to friends at home. My best friend from college, Laura, sent a box of books (book rate- -taking months to arrive) whenever her library sponsored one of their semiannual book sales. Because she and I have a long history of recommending books to each other, she knew what I would like, so she loaded 19th century British writers (Trollope and Gaskell were favorites then) in the box along with nonfiction science, baseball, and political works for my husband and appropriate reading for our sixth and ninth grade daughters. We met the box from Laura with ecstatic anticipation.
Living in Pakistan was perhaps the most challenging of book acquiring locations, but we have continued our tradition of searching for and delighting in an English language book found in unusual place (left on a train in Lithuania, sold by a beggar on the streets in Beijing). We feel free to read and sometimes borrow (if we leave a donation of reading material behind) books from inns and hostels that we have patronized along our peregrinations. Our last foreign posting in Beijing led to our familial lending library in which our daughters would visit with their books, leave them behind and take with them ones that my husband and I recommended.
E-readers, while so convenient, make it unnecessary to search for good reading in faraway places, but I, for one, will continue the quest. The hunt is half the fun, and the prize of finding an unexpected treasure in the most unlikely of places gives untold pleasure.