Zora Neale Hurston said “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
2020 is certainly a year that asks one question – Why?
Why do I have to be stuck at home? Why can’t I travel freely? Why is there no separation between work and leisure, self and family, home and away from home?
Every year I make plans to travel. Often with family. Sometimes with friends. I meticulously calculate my annual leave allotment and distribute it across various vacations. The anticipation for every trip is as exciting as the travel itself.
Except for the year of Covid.
For months I have walked around my immediate neighborhood paying close attention. In the pre-Covid days I would nod to familiar neighbors and look perplexed at local flora and fauna. Now I can identify the ubiquitous ixora and the regal white-throated kingfisher but look with confusion at friends whose faces are hidden behind masks.
Despite my grumbling, I am grateful that in Singapore, I have the freedom to step out every single day, unlike in many other places with strict lockdowns. Plus, I had access to books – physical copies, ebook versions and my new favorite, audiobooks. And that has made all the difference.
“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.”
Long ago I came across these words by Pulitzer-prize winner author Anna Quindlen in a small book titled “How Reading Changed My Life.” In the last few months of being stuck at home, I have truly understood their meaning.
Although I could not ‘literally’ travel to other countries, through books, I could still visit them ‘literarily’. I know, it is a made up word. But it makes sense.
As the curbs on movement became more strict, I embarked on a reading experiment. I decided to read books by authors from countries that I had never read before. Like most readers of English-language books, my TBR pile was saturated with books by Western authors. How about reading books that originated in other countries?
In addition to British authors, over the years I had enjoyed Maeve Binchy’s stories set in Ireland and American stories by Ann Patchett. But I remember being fascinated by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I set out to familiarize myself with the works of contemporary authors, not necessarily native-English writers.
Well before Oprah’s international reading list made an appearance, I had begun my experiment. Although I didn’t make a list, names of books from various countries came to me. From social media posts and book groups, from recommendations from friends and features in newspapers, an eclectic lineup of fiction and nonfiction books took shape.
And with each book, I was transported. With Elif Shafak, I twirled with the dervishes in Turkey, a country I had visited a few years ago with friends. Marjan Kamali took me to a bookshop in Iran. Cho Nam-joo, through her protagonist Kim Jiyoung told a story familiar to every woman in Korea and showed me how women across the world bear the same burdens, despite being geographically apart.
I wrote reviews when I felt compelled to do so. At other times, I savored the words and raced through the pages, eager to find out how things turned out. The more I read, the more I wanted to read. For every book that sat besides my bed, I had at least a couple more on my ebook reader and another for company on my nightly walks around the neighborhood.
Working from home was not easy. But books made it bearable. If emails made me sick, I would turn towards a hefty hardcover book to ground me. When my eyes got tired from watching the screen, I would head out for some fresh air, albeit filtered through a mask, and listen to audiobooks.
Next on my list are books from Afghanistan and Iceland. The latter I visited two years ago, the former, although close to India, seems harder to reach. That’s where books come in. Whether it’s a fictional love story, or a true one of hardship, for a while I am transported. To a place, a time, a life that is strange and exotic but also so familiar. Through the eyes and words of characters who look nothing like me, I get to know them and discover something about myself.
Isn’t that the purpose of travel? To find something new, not just in a new place but within you?
There are years when I have to travel to make this discovery. And there are years when I make it while staying home.
What discoveries have you made with books? Where have books taken you – literally and literarily? Share your recent and/or favorite reads.