Tuesday, November 24, 2020

I Should Have Stayed Home edited by Roger Rapoport and Marguerita Castanera

Today I'm here to talk about keeping reading. This year I've had a lot of things that kept me from reading as many books I did in past years -- you may have had some similar distractions in your own life in 2020. But you're probably here reading this blog because you like books, like being the person who reads books for leisure, and want to reinforce that habit. So those distractions are doubly annoying: not just in themselves, as all distractions are, but because they push you away from doing something you really want to do.

This isn't the book I thought I was going to be reading next. I've gotten back into a rhythm, and am avoiding the anxiety of choice by going shelf-by-shelf through the unread books, picking one from this shelf and then one from the next. (Choosing among 35 books or so being much simpler than choosing among several hundred.) So I picked up what I think is still the newest novel by one of my favorite writers -- a bit longer than what I've been reading lately -- from the next shelf along and settled into a big chair, expecting to love it.

But it wasn't the right book, or I wasn't in the right mood. I got one chapter in, but it took most of a distraction-filled weekend day. For years, I didn't give up on books -- when you're reading professionally (and reading at the speed I was), you just power through to the end. Now, I'm quicker to realize time is limited and the world is infinite: so put down that book immediately if it's not what you need or want now. We all have options.

Another book on the same shelf was this one: I Should Have Stayed Home, a collection of short travel writings from 1994. It was shorter, made up of short pieces to begin with, and, most importantly, much closer to what it seemed like I wanted to read at the time.

So, instead of reading a novel by a writer I love, instead I read fifty essays by...well, let me be generous and say that some of them were world-famous travel writers. Others were loosely associated with the small Northern California press that published this book and/or the store Book Passage and its related travel-writing conference (which is still running), and several have the kind of bios in the back that made this former editor cringe.

I doubt any of you have ever heard of this book, will ever see this book, or would ever make any effort to find or read this book. But I bought it randomly at some point, it was sitting on that shelf, and it was a pleasant-enough thing that kept me from sitting with a bookmark in that novel (which I am never going to name) for the next six months.

I'm probably slandering I Should Have Stayed Home here. The pieces included -- they're all vignettes or short narratives rather than essays or fully-formed stories -- are almost all funny, all at least solidly written, and none of them outstay their welcomes. Sure, the subtitle "the worst trips of great writers" is slightly hyperbolic, but it definitely has a lot of bad trips (and bad in amusing ways) of many writers (at least a handful of whom are clearly great). So that's close enough for blurb purposes.

The famous here include Rick Steves, Paul Theroux, Tony Wheeler, and Jan Morris, plus a bunch of novelists (Isabel Allende, Joe Gores, Barbara Kingsolver, several others). There are also a lot of people who were writing travel pieces, particularly for San Francisco-area markets, in the early '90s, most of whom were not then great or famous and did not become so later.

But I'm not great or famous myself, so it's not a big deal. Editors Roger Rapoport (owner of the RDR Books that published this as well as a contributor) and Marguerita Castanera (one of the organizers of the conference and the person I suspect did most or all of the work making this book happen) did a good job of pulling together an entertaining themed collection. Most of the proceeds of this book were also donated to Oxfam America, which is a noble cause -- I don't quite see the connection to travel writing, but that's a quibble.

Again, I could have a lot of quibbles. It's a book made up largely of quibbles, and it was built from those quibbles over twenty-five years ago. The world has changed hugely since the trips chronicled in I Should Have Stayed Home happened -- that's the eternal issue with travel writing, that everything is different almost immediately everywhere.

It's a Heraclitean river, I guess. If you do randomly encounter this book -- maybe if it's the only thing in English to read in some youth hostel in a country foreign to you, as night falls and you're stuck far from home -- it can entertain you for the hours it takes to read. And that's definitely not nothing.

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