I finished a book last night. Curled up in bed to protect myself against the cold weather in Toronto, Umberto Eco took me away to an uncharted island somewhere in Polynesia in 1643 in The Island of the Day Before. I always leave myself one sleep before starting a new book. If you close one and immediately open another you do a disservice to the new book, since you’re still really in the world of the other. So I went to bed, and woke up this morning feeling a book-shaped void in my life. I have 6 days left in my trip to Toronto and, finding myself out of books, I headed out to Balfour Books in a panic.
Buying books for or while on a holiday is a tricky business. You don’t want to bring War and Peace because you might well spend the whole time reading one book, which seems a waste. On the other hand, you don’t want to bring five or six shorter books because – as the Kindle Zombies will tell you – books are sooooo unbearably heavy that I don’t even know how anyone ever carried one. (My answer to said Kindle Zombies: ditch two or three pairs of shoes and all your gadgets for a few books so you have something actually interesting to do and stop moaning.) That said, I do try to bring only a few books on holiday – the more books you have the more likely you are to forget one or leave an old one behind to have space for a new one. And, for me, part of the fun of traveling with books is bringing them home again, with a ticket stub or metro pass from another city tucked in somewhere, to sit on my shelf and remind me of my travels.
But if you don’t bring enough books you may end up with six days left and no reading material. This gives you the chance to go book-hunting in a new city, but suddenly you are looking for just one book to get you through. Suddenly you have to worry about how long it you should buy to keep you busy and how thick or thin it needs to be to fit in your bag. It’s stressful.
I thought a lot (probably too much) about all these questions and in the end decided to visit Balfour Books, a used bookshop on College Street, to find something relatively short but interesting and challenging enough that I wouldn’t speed through it too quickly. I had Virginia Woolf in mind because her novels meet those criteria, and because she’d prepare me to go back to London. I walked for ages along a grey and dreary College Street so by the time I finally saw Balfour Books I was more than ready to get out of the cold and the harsh banality of downtown Toronto and wrap myself up in the soft, comfortable glow of the bookshop.
The advantage of book-hunting at 11am on a Tuesday is that everyone who actually lives here is at work, so I was the only customer. As I wandered around the shelves and in and out of quiet enclaves, I was alone with books, classical music and the quiet chatter of the lovely bookseller and another woman I suspect was an employee or a friend. They politely welcomed me when I came in, offered to help and then left me to browse silently, which is all I ever want to do. I love booksellers who get that. While I planted myself down in a chair near the Fiction section, the two ladies continued their conversation which meandered from books to art to wildlife to travel and back to books again. I could have sat there for hours listening.
The bookshop has a great selection of books from many different genres. The fiction selection is huge and includes everything from ancient Greece to the present, with books that range from cheap paperback editions of classics to beautiful hardcover copies of contemporary novels by the biggest authors of recent years. Speaking of which, atop a lovely old chest of drawers at the front of the shop, short story collections by Alice Munro catch the eye and remind the world that, finally, a Canadian has actually done something worthwhile. I tease, but Alice Munro is brilliant and deserves the attention. Besides, it’s always good when a bookshop makes the effort to get its customers to pay attention to good writing. Balfour Books also has travel, cooking, science, art, architecture, mystery, poetry and drama sections which are excellently stocked and have labels on the shelves made of Scrabble letters. It’s so cool. The books range from pristine almost-new copies to battered old ones which are nearly falling apart!
There is also an excellent children’s section, where you’ll find classic and contemporary picture books, the very best of chapter books as well as some young adult and teen titles. My favourite part of the children’s section, though, are the ancient (or at least vintage!) hardback copies of well-known children’s favourites and their lesser-known contemporaries. There are lovely old copies of The Jungle Book and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and an 1865 children’s book called The Brownies by Juliana Ewing, about magical little creatures who sneak into homes and night and help out. This was the book that gave the Baden-Powells their name for the younger division of the Girl Guides. I’m a Brownie leader in London by night so this made me very happy and I nearly bought it. Had I not been on holiday and worried about the weight of my bag I would have.
After being distracted from my Virginia Woolf search by several novels, a book of poetry and a biography of Hillary Clinton I knelt down and rummaged through the pile of paperbacks and pulled out two of Woolf’s novels that I haven’t read: Jacob’s Room and Orlando. They were both only $4 (£2.40) and I’m sure I would have loved either. But something made me put them down. I love Virginia Woolf. I love the way her tales of London are 90 odd years old but still add something to my own experience of that city. But sitting there, crouched over the bottom shelf, I realised that when you’re traveling, even somewhere not really new, it seems like a cop-out to pick out a book that reminds you of the place you came from or are going back to. There will always be time for the familiar, but when you’re far away it’s good to embrace someone else’s familiar. Surely that, above all else, is what books teach us.
Nothing would have been nearly as interesting if Bilbo Baggins had got his way and stayed at home living his normal happy life. I would have had nothing to entertain me last night if Umberto Eco’s Roberto had never left his little Italian village and made his way toward the lights of seventeenth century Paris. The adventure plot is one of the oldest in Western literature and there’s a reason we’re still fascinated by it. It’s why we travel. It’s why we go to new places and it’s why we return years later to the old ones. There may not be dragons, there may not be gold, there may not be a fair maiden, but if we listen to the songs and stories of the people in the places where we find ourselves, sometimes, we really do find ourselves. So I took the hint. I bought The Progress of Love by Alice Munro for $7. I hope that reading it will help me find a way to link the stories of the place I came from with the stories of the many places where I’ll find myself.