Books: portable and joyful

2013 May Wolfgagesee cycle ride 2013-05-28 001

According to Neil Gaiman, ‘Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath resistant, solar operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them.’  And I think he is right.

It feels that ink and paper is being replaced by e-Books, potentially saving thousands of trees, although sales have been falling.  This got me thinking, will this mean the end of the campsite book swap, a feature of most good sites?  These range from a dusty shelf in a corner of a room with half a dozen novels from the last century to a tidy book case bulging with a range of current novels.  How much longer will I be able to browse the rows of dog-eared paperbacks on the off-chance that something will take my eye?

To say I like reading is an understatement, I always have a novel on the go; with a book I am never bored, trains can be delayed, dentists can make me wait and I am entertained.  On trips away in our campervan I always have a few books tucked away in case I get through my current book; we might have a wet day and be van-bound or I might want to soak up some sunshine, either way I will want to also spend the time travelling in my head through the pages of a novel.

In 2009 my partner and I took a late gap year and travelled around southern Europe in our camper van.  One of my concerns was how to ensure I had enough reading material as I knew it was not possible to carry the 75 books I needed during the twelve months on the road in our small VW.  Think back to those days; e-Books had started to appear on the scene but were not so ubiquitous and paperbacks seemed the only way to go.  Using every space I could in the van, I found room for about 20 books of various sizes and genres, left parcels of others for our lovely son to mail out or bring in his suitcase when feasible and hoped to buy, borrow or swap the rest along the way.  With this simple plan I unwittingly opened myself up to interesting and fun experiences that I will always treasure.

Memorable swaps during our time away include the Fay Weldon I was persuaded to try by a Dutch gentleman who, in to his tidy ‘van, describing himself as a story teller with regular ‘gigs’ in different countries.  A motorcyclist gave me the fantastic Robert Harris’ Pompeii on an Austrian site not long after we had visited that beautiful area.  Another campsite swap re-kindled my interest in Graham Greene’s novels with a well thumbed copy of The Human Factor and an exciting Val McDermid crime novel set in Manchester and found on a well-stocked and English-owned camp site in southern France bought back memories of home.

My modus operandi was to wander over to an unsuspecting UK motorhome on a campsite with the handful of books I had to offer.  When the book swapping went well we would chat about books we had enjoyed for a while and I would leave with a couple of interesting novels to read.  However, these productive encounters were rare and I was astonished to find there is a non-reading community out there.  I remember one lovely couple we met in France who ransacked their caravan to find me a book to read and eventually unearthed an exceptionally tatty copy of Denis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out that had not seen the light of day since around 1966; I didn’t want to offend such helpful people and so took the novel off their hands.

Books were also often a good starting point for wider conversations; we met a cyclist from the Netherlands who came over to chat because I was reading Geert Mak’s In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century.  Apparently this marvellous collection of travel and history writing is a best seller in the Netherlands and the evening ended up with us sharing a bottle of homemade schnapps (from another friendly camper) and putting the world to rights.  In Slovenia, I noticed the young receptionist at a camp site was reading an English novel; I was so impressed with his command of a second language and talked to him about English novels, giving him a couple of books I had finished with when we left.  Another lively conversation with a lovely couple in southern Spain who were living permanently in their RV, started when they put a pile of books out on their pitch with a sign saying help yourself.

When we reached Spain on our 12-month trip, the book swapping became much easier, as campsites which had plenty of ‘winter migrants’ from the UK would often have a shelf of books available to swap and I would be able to leave the novels I had read and take away something new to read.  These book swap shelves are generally a relaxed places on a camp site; I could spend as long as I wanted browsing the choices to find something to my taste.

Not so on one camp site in southern Spain that will remain nameless, as we may still be on their wanted list.  This site had taken the provision of reading material to another level.  They had a library room, full of books in English and many other European languages that was strictly run by a retired librarian from Scandinavia, who spent her winters on the site.  She used a computer to monitor the borrowing and returning of the extensive selection of books and relaxed swapping of books was forbidden.  This worked fine for those who were spending months on the site but didn’t work well for me as we didn’t intend to stay long enough to finish a novel.  I gave a false name and vehicle registration and we left the camp site with one stolen novel, although in my defence I did donate two books in exchange to their library.

Choosing to take an e-Book on our long-term trip might have meant I read the books I wanted to read but I would have missed the opportunity to interact with new people, try some authors I would never have considered and experience the unexpected.  Not to mention what would have happened when I spilt my coffee over my e-Book!