I can’t imagine leaving home without a book.

I’ve been travelling overseas recently. A good part of travelling and preparing to travel has always been about the book. Of course there are the novels and travel guides read before leaving, but more important are the books to take on the trip.

For me, it’s always a series of books; the travel guide, the book I leave home with, the book bought at the airport or train station, the book bought in the place I go to, and the serendipitous book exchanged with a fellow traveller. On a long trip I’m generally lugging somewhere between two and five books – a sizable slice of my baggage allowance.

You’d think I’d be a perfect candidate for downloading all the books into one slimline eReader or tablet. But I couldn’t do it. The title of this blogpost is a lie. In my recent travel, I remained determinedly old school.

That’s not to say I won’t succumb and take my tablet sometime soon, but before I join the other travellers clustered like maypole dancers around the power outlets at every airport, I wanted to think about what changes when eReaders replace books as a travel accessory.

One of the prime virtues of books when travelling is their disposability. If they get lost or stolen or left behind it isn’t a problem. You can swap them with strangers or give them to people you meet. You can rip the pages out as you go along to lighten your load, write in the margins, and in extremity use them for toilet paper.

Books never need charging and given enough time will eventually compost back into the earth.

eReaders have their own virtues – principally the ability to carry an entire library of books, the benefit of a light in dark spaces, and dynamic updates to travel books. But the disposable nature of books brings some social and economic impacts which will change when they’re replaced by the less disposable eReader.

When I travel, I know I’ll be leaving books along the way, so I choose carefully. I’ll confess to a touch of missionary zeal. Last time, I left home with Cate Kennedy and Margo Lanagan in my backpack. I try to choose Australians, and authors I love. I like to think of them making their way around the world, swapped from hand to hand and shared with people who might never find them otherwise.

Travellers have been leaving books behind like a trail of sticky breadcrumbs for decades. There’s a second-hand book shop in every tourist town – usually run by some seedy-looking expat who will never make it home again. Every backpacker hostel has its library of grubby paperbacks – a little international exchange of ideas. True, they’re often dominated by a preponderance of sword and sorcery epics, pseudo-spirituality and whatever the best seller of the moment is – Dan Brown or Stieg Larsson in seven different languages. They represent for good or ill, the wisdom or stupidity of the travelling crowd, but amongst the familiar there’s always the chance of finding a book you would never have otherwise seen.

A book in your hand or in a strangers hand, gives you an excuse to discuss literature with the locals or other travellers, to learn from their favourites and the books they trade something about other places, other people.

In some countries, the discarded book represents significant social and economic value to the local people. They’re something to sell on the streets or in the market to the next traveller. They’re studied to help learn enough of a foreign language to get a job in hospitality or as a tour guide, or to sell something else. So what will happen as the traveller’s books move from cheap, disposable paper to the eReader?

Will books with Che Guevara on the cover remain forever on book stands in Cuban marketplaces bleaching ever whiter in the sunlight? Will street hawkers throughout the world still thrust paperbacks under tourist’s noses? What will Cambodian children sell in place of pirated travel guides?

The impact of the traveller’s book has never been unproblematic. Travel, by its nature has economic and social impacts, both good and bad, and the lost or left behind novel is as unquestionably a part of it as the travel guides that lead tourists in their hordes to the same ‘undiscovered’ beauty spots.

When travelling in countries where five Australian dollars can feed a family for a week, a twenty dollar book feels like a more benign and less in-your-face flaunting of wealth than a device costing hundreds of dollars. Perhaps it’s this Western guilt, as much as the need for a comforting familiarity which makes me feel happier travelling with my swag of books than an iPad.

It wasn’t until I came home that I read Slavoj Zizek’s recent piece in the Sydney Morning Herald linking the current situation in the Congo with the mining of minerals used in, amongst other things, high tech devices such as laptops and mobile phones.

It was enough to make me bury my head in a pile of books.

Catherine Moffat

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  1. Great post Catherine. One of my treasured books is a paperback of Mordecai Richler’s Shovelling trouble given to me by a Canadian backpacker (though I don’t think we called them that then – hitchhiker perhaps?!) at a Youth Hostel in Tasmania. I will never part with that book.

    BUT I did travel this year with my kindle and my iPad, plus one paperback. I’m never sure what I’ll feel like reading so having a choice with me that didn’t weigh a ton was perfect. And we were travelling in Japan, mostly in small towns where English-lang books would be hard come by, so eBooks were really the go. I prefer the Kindle for reading – easier on the eyes but the iPad is best for travel guides, maps, etc. Spouse and I did, though, need to coordinate charging my two devices and his netbook! And we each have a special little multi-pocket bag for our various cables (since we have cameras too).

    My reading at home, though, is still pretty much 80% printed books …

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