My niece Hannah, who just turned 21, and her best friend are leaving this week for a two-month trip knocking around Europe. They’re going to Brussels, Bruges, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Geneva, Nice, Barcelona, and Pamplona. I’m wondering which books I would recommend for them to take with them on the journey. Let’s say that they asked you to suggest three books — fiction or nonfiction — that they should take with them, that should be their companions on this particular journey, which ones would you recommend? Keep in mind they’re going to be backpacking, so three large Russian novels (for example) probably wouldn’t be the thing to take. I’m not recommending the Divine Comedy because the text and the commentaries necessary to profit from a reading of it would take up too much room in their backpacks. On the other hand, it’s a two-month trip that will involve lots of time on trains, so skinny, lightweight entertainments probably wouldn’t be the thing either. Nothing makes the time pass more quickly or pleasantly than P.G. Wodehouse, but three Wodehouse titles won’t get you past a week or two.
Off the top of my head, the three things I would recommend are:
1. Europe, An Intimate Journey, by Jan Morris. The great Welsh travel writer’s compendium of reflections about a lifetime of traveling throughout Europe is conversational but deep, and full of variety. Reading it while doing the same thing that Morris did puts you in a more receptive frame of mind to the wonders you’ll be seeing.
2. Black Lamb And Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West. West’s thick volume detailing her travels in the Balkans in the mid-1930s are a travel-writing masterpiece. The girls aren’t even going to the Balkans, but that hardly matters. West’s reflections put one in mind of the power of history, geography, and national and religious identity in shaping the fate of particular European places. Plus her prose is so luminous that you can read the same passages again and again, and learn from them.
3. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. I don’t know how reading this novel today would work out for me. When I was Hannah’s age, I absolutely adored it. It was sexy, it was intellectual, it was soooo European. It was a novel of ideas. Plus, she’s going to Prague, so how can she not take that with her?
Those are my three guesses right now. Check back with me in a couple of hours, and my life will have changed (I probably will have thought of something better than the Kundera). What would your three college-student-backpacking-Europe books be? Don’t include the Bible.
UPDATE: I know, I know: take a Kindle. I didn’t suggest that because I know they are on a very tight budget — both of them are college students — and won’t buy Kindles. Plus, it’s a fun blog post exercise to think of which three books you would recommend. Since I wrote this, Hannah has been by to tell us goodbye. She said she’s taking Unbearable Lightness — a favorite of hers — and some Hemingway. Doesn’t know if she has room for anything else. I offered her my copy of the Jan Morris, but she passed. She’ll find something to read there, I’m sure. It’s just that English-language books are so expensive on the Continent. I remember being in Nice in the summer of ’87, traveling with my college buddy, and desperate for something to read on the beach. I found a bookstore with a limited English language selection, and paid $14 — this is in ’87 — for a paperback copy of Tropic Of Cancer. It seemed like the thing to read as an American in France. I couldn’t finish it; I found Henry Miller to be a repulsive person. He made sex filthy.