This week’s ETTO is being drafted in the tiny terrible seats of a Ryanair flight to the wonderful city of Berlin. As such I can’t offer much in the way of close reading, but I thought I would see what I can come up with in airplane mode.
I was thinking about books away from home, and how reading changes with your location. I had a reading week in Berlin a few years ago as a friend I was meaning to visit had to disappear to a damp warehouse to make an art film, I was left in the city with books. I picked up a number of short things, including my first brush with C A Conrad and The Book Of Frank. I dined our alone with a H P Lovecraft collection and remember getting spooked in the UBahn station on the way home before receiving a call from my displaced host from his cold, leaking barn, where the mad film was being made. I felt a little bad that I was enjoying his gift of a week of reading while he was shivering for art.
The week of reading alone in a foreign country gave me a chance to take dives into these books without coming up for air — room for contemplation and extension. Ben Marcus once said something like: “I knew I was a writer when I would be reading a book, then stop reading, and the story would continue”. This idea of taking the world you’re given in fiction and wandering on with it is aided by the isolation of being away from your homeland and the interruptions that come with unavoidably understanding your language.
Similarly there’s something special about English bookshops abroad. It is a condensed representation of English language culture from usually one or two people’s point of view. Whereas you can wander the aisles of Waterstones and feel a bit lost with the huge amount of popular fiction, the a-z and cul-de-sacs of genre, these smaller shops will just display a manageable understanding of what’s available and good.
Years ago in Bangkok I went to the English literature section of one of their large chain bookstores, inside the palatial malls and found myself faced with a single ten metre shelf. It covered it, fairly happily. It hard to look at an ideal summary of the cannon of your culture on the shelves thousands of miles away and not feel a little bit happy to have such a history to draw on.
In Nantes, a tiny corner of a bookshop was dedicated to modern English fiction. Here I picked up Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, and read it each day after cycling to the next location, bouncing with flow of the prose as the Loire slumped alongside. The location of the reading made the stories of the complications of a simple life in the sunshine more direct in feeling.
The time spent with books in reflective moments like this give them the opportunity to set roots in a way that the books you fit in amongst the jumble of life don’t.
Thanks for reading Etch To Their Own, Sorry my links are not beautiful. I started this on a plane and am finishing it in a beer garden. If you’re in Berlin please say hello 👋🏻