Packing the Right Books

The other day my little car got filled to the gills with volumes of desert books, cooking books, novels, field guides and dictionaries (this is where I run out of steam and pretend that’s all of it) from gleaming bricks to flapping rags.  This was the first time in a very long time that all my books were going to be in one place for a while. Many of them knew the insides of handbags and suitcases better than the dusty shelves. On a trip where I was moving all my things, taking enough books was hardly an issue. But it got me thinking about packing books. Packing the right books. Packing light enough. Packing enough.

I unpacked them again, stoflap in hand, and enjoyed their comforting presence. As I started building a tottering stack with the ones I still needed to get round to reading, I remembered a travel account I read earlier in 2017. A world of my own (1969) by Robin Knox-Johnston, the first man who sailed nonstop around the world single-handed in 1968, doesn’t just take you on a fascinating journey around the globe. It also takes you right to the brink of some of your biggest book packing fears: like taking the wrong book.

What if you’re too sleepy/relaxed/stressed/bored/gatvol for the sensible read/classic you always meant to read/laugh-out-loud that turns out to be a whimper quietly/engaging biography when you feel like just quietly sinking into light pink fluff? Sometimes you can surprise yourself by suddenly getting roused from your airport lounge fog by Tolstoy or find a character in a romance novel so delightful you even try to read it on a bumpy road between flashes of dried-up trees. But that’s the thing, you just never know, do you? So you pack another one – and you were just popping one into your bag going to the queue at the Traffic Department.

A lot of people will ask you what book you’d take to a desert island, without seriously expecting you to go and find out. But here’s the book question you’re left with after you hop off the deck of the Suhaili and trace the journey on the map again: what do you pack for a year-long, solo trip on a small boat? I found it very enjoyable to read Knox-Johston’s reasoning behind the list of books he took:

The two bookshelves in the cabin were packed and I had to set aside another shelf in the W.C. in order to get them all in. This was not really because I had too many books; I had to take a number of seamanship and navigation manuals, and most of the rest were lent to me by Dr Ronald Hope of the Seafarers’ Education Service. He had obviously taken considerable trouble to get the sort of books I wanted and many times during the voyage I was to think gratefully of his kindness.

I took some care choosing books from home. I am a voracious book reader but I had no idea how much free time I would have, so I chose books that would take time to read and yet hold their interest all the way through. I had never really found the time to read the classics, so books like Tristram Shandy, Vanity Fair, Orley Farm, War and Peace, were an obvious, and in the event wise choice. I also had about twenty-five specialist books dealing with the sea, sea-life and aspects relating to them, solely because the subject fascinates me. I did not really expect to have very much spare time on my hands, but as it was possible that I might have more than the books would fill, I took along a correspondence course for the Institute of Transport Examinations. The purpose of this was to give my mind something to concentrate on. I had no idea how ten months on my own would affect me mentally, so I decided to provide something that would help discipline my mind. – p. 27

Reading through the lists of supplies at the back of A world of my own, would be enough to occupy you on a flight, say from Durban to Johannesburg. But if you’re just in a supermarket queue at month-end, here’s a copy of Knox-Johnston’s whole book list. It’s alphabetical, which adds to the startling impression of the sheer variety of books:

 Holy Bible

W.B. Alexander: Birds of the Ocean

James Boswell: London Journal, 1762-3

Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights

Charles H. Brown: Nichols’ Seamanship and Nautical Knowledge

Samuel Butler: Erewhon and Erewhon Revisited

Boys’ Brigade Ambulance Handbook

Thomas Carlyle: The French Revolution

Rachel Carson: The Sea Around Us and The Sea

Apsley Cherry-Garrard: The Worst Journey in the World

Charles Darwin: The Voyage of the Beagle

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment

R.J. Eaton: The Elements of Transport

George Eliot: The Mill on the Floss

John Evelyn: The Diary of John Evelyn (vol. 1.). Ed. W. Bray

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones

G.W. Gaunt: Elementary Calculus

J. Green: A Biology of Crustacea

Golden Treasury of English Verse

J.L. Hanson: A Textbook of Economics

Eric C. Hiscock: Around the World in Wanderer III

Captain F.N. Hopkin: Business and Law for Shipmaster

David Lewis: Daughters of the Wind

H.R. Light: The Legal Aspects of Business

N.B. Marshall: Aspects of Deep Sea Biology

Herman Melville: Billy Budd, Sailor, and Other Stories

J.R. Norman: A History of Fishes

J.R. Norman and F.C. Fraser: Giant Fishes, Whales and Dolphins

Oxford Illustrated Dictionary

Rabelais: Collected Works

Ray and Ciampi: Underwater Guide to Marine Life

Fred Reinfield: Chess in a Nutshell

Samuel Richardson: Clarissa

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Confessions

Bertrand Russel: History of Western Philosophy

Christopher I. Savage: An Economic History of Transport

William Shakespeare: Complete Works

H.A. Silverman: The Substance of Economics

Joshua Slocum: Sailing Alone Round the World

J.L.B. Smith: Fishes of South African Waters

Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy and Sentimental Journey

W.M. Thackeray: Vanity Fair and History of Henry Esmond Esq.

Mike Tinbergen: The Herring Gull’s World

Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace

Anthony Trollope: Orley Farm

Mark Twain: Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn

Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald: The World of Fishes

H.G.Wells: Outline of History

Gilbert White: The Natural History of Selbourne – pp.235-236

You can say about this list what you like, but you did start thinking. Maybe you started looking up some of the titles because you got curious. Ticked off the ones you’ve already read. Maybe you picked up his list in your imagination and chucked the ones you didn’t like to replace them with your own. Added a category or two. Came up with your own list. Could be any one or all or none of these, but if you read this far, then you’re probably wondering: did it work?

Electronic books have taken some of the panic out of my book packing for trips – at least then I never have to run on empty. But I still like to take an Eskom-proof, shatter-proof, sort-of-fall-in-the-bath-proof one too. Just for the case and the in case. Even with his impressive supply, Knox-Johnston had to do some clever mixing and rationing – as with his other supplies – to make the written words on the boat last for as long as possible.

Poetry had become more and more important as my supply of unread books dwindled. I found it difficult to read whilst steering as one’s eyes stay away from the compass too long and the course becomes erratic, but it was easy to sit and learn poetry. Apart from the enjoyment this gave me, I also thought that the mental discipline involved in sitting, learning and remembering the verses would be good for me. As far as I could tell when I had last met people off New Zealand, I was sane and unchanged, but I did not feel that I could really judge myself in this. If any changes were taking place I could not be sure that I would notice them, as I had nothing to compare myself with. I did use the tape recorder periodically to check my powers of speech, but I was far more concerned in preserving my mind. In order to do this I learned a great deal of poetry, not only the Elegy, with some of the finest verses written in the English language, but also Burns, Scott, Shakespeare and Cunningham amongst many others. To give my voice practice, I would usually recite out loud, my Golden Treasures of English Verse in hand, to a wondering audience of albatross and petrels. pp. 135-136

There you have it, pack some poems or a play.

Perform when all else fails.