I love being read to. I also love reading aloud. I relish the permutation of reading that is shared. In my experience, the opportunity for shared reading tends to crop up in delightful and unexpected ways when I’m on the road. At the tail end of a year and a half spent working and traveling in various parts of the Pacific Rim, for example, I met some SoCal surfers in a hostel in Auckland. New Zealand was their first stop on a surf tour around the world. They were green travelers whereas I was just about ready to go home. I was broke and looking for a job whereas they were flush and looking for a van. We struck a deal. If I found a job first, then off to work I’d go. If they found a van first, then off to the road we’d go. They “won,” which is to say that so did I, and we spent the next three or so weeks chasing waves on the North Island (and hiking and exploring when the surf didn’t cooperate). We also read Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions together.
When we tucked into our tent the first night, Tim flipped on a flashlight and announced story time. I was thrilled, and although our other companion was not so excited, Tim bribed him with the novel’s illustrations, in particular, this one:
My experience of New Zealand is now inextricably intertwined with the reading of the novel, and my grasp of the novel is infinitely more vivid than it would have been had I read it at home. Reading on the road has a way of making books come alive for me, whether or not the reading experience is shared. I’m looking forward to taking my read on the road again this week. I’m headed north for a residency at the Vermont Studio Center.
I’ve driven up and down the east coast so many times that I hardly see it anymore, and I’m grateful for the opportunity this time to read my way up the coast instead of scrambling to get to my destination. My old travel buddy Tim is flying in on Tuesday, and we plan to make a road trip of the journey. In good road trip fashion, the only plan we have is an ultimate destination, an arrival date, and some books.
Last time I saw Tim, he was reading Thoreau. Not sure what he’s reading now, but I hope that he has some fun tricks up his sleeve. If not, I have a stack that I’m taking with me for the weeks in Vermont. I’m thinking that Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer will be a fun book for the tent. Or Borges’ Ficciones. Or Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day. If I’m lucky, Robert Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants will arrive before we take off. An obvious choice for bedtime stories on the road, it’s also a book I know little to nothing about, just like I knew nothing about Vonnegut when Tim cracked it open and showed us the asshole. Vonnegut became a discovery for me as marvelous as the North Island with its prehistoric looking ferns, thermal springs, and the break at Cape Reinga.
Cape Reinga is the northern most tip of New Zealand. It’s where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific meet and where I had my first surf. The Maori name for Cape Reinga means the leaping off place of spirits. It’s a liminal zone, not unlike the zone of the road trip or the zone within the covers of a book. It’s a zone where the day to day falls away, and a wide field of possibility opens up. Like reading, liminal zones are often populated by the solitary embarking on very personal journeys. What a treat, then, when such things can be shared.
originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review Blog on November 15, 2010