Amy and Isabelle, by Elizabeth Strout and Beyond Babylon, by Igiaba Scego

I’ve never really bought the “reading is like traveling” argument. Reading is reading, and travel is travel, and never the twain shall meet. (Reading an Elin Hilderbrand book is just as good as actually being on Nantucket? Girl, please.) On Instagram, I occasionally tussle with the idea of why we read – and inevitably, someone brings up “travel.” I’m not saying that is not their experience, but it has never been mine.

Until now! Because I can’t travel anywhere! We can time travel, though, so let me take you back a bit.

Maybe I just wanted to travel to high school when I was younger.

When I was in high school, an old bowling alley in Bellevue, Washington was converted into a Barnes & Noble. I had never seen a book store like this, except for maybe once in NYC. Occasionally, I would pop into Elliott Bay Books with my family, but otherwise B. Dalton stores were the staples of my book-buying and -browsing experiences. Nothing wrong with B. Dalton, of course, but they were generally small (comparatively speaking), and to be honest, my own memories of bookstores like that are me looking longingly at the Sweet Valley High books that were deemed a bit too mature for eight-year-old me. B. Dalton = Harriet the Spy and the Dell Yearling imprint. This Barnes & Noble was a totally new world. Welcome to adulthood, Amy! It was bigger, for sure – and there was a Starbucks attached so I could get an iced mocha. You walk in, take a whiff (Barnes & Noble stores still smell the same to me!), and think: This place holds possibilities; I’m going to be exposed to something new and different to me. “Like a kid in a candy store” is such an overused trope and simile, so how about “Like someone who has recently been given a round-trip ticket to anywhere and is staring at a map”?

old map
Lots of information here.

You pick up a new book perhaps because of an interesting cover. Or, at 16 or 17 and armed with an actual job, you get to have free rein and explore hundreds of books and authors that you’ve always heard about. This is how you discover Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees. It’s how you acquire a random book because of the bright cover: The Planets, by James Finney Boylan, now Jennifer Finney Boylan. (The book doesn’t have many reviews on Amazon, but it sounds like people discovered it the same way I did: Saw it on the shelf, looked interesting, so added it to their “book knowledge” collection.) When I say “you,” I really mean “I/me,” but I hope the excitement of new knowledge is universal.

Being set free in an enormous bookstore presents itself as one of the ultimate experiences for “info geeks” everywhere. I love information. I love absorbing it, observing it, and mulling it over. I don’t mean information, like “data” (although I do love a good infographic). What I mean is just “stuff,” the broad brush of knowledge that incrementally adds to one’s life experience. Remember when you were little and you would hear adults at a dinner party talk about, say, a political figure or a classic movie? Those pieces of information feel like something to put in your arsenal, something to keep your curiosity brewing. “What’s All the President’s Men?” you wonder. “I wish I knew more about Watergate,” you think. I don’t want to compare this sort of information-gathering to getting stamps in your passport, but it kind of is. “I’d love to see Greece one day because I’ve heard so much about it – then I can better ‘feel’ what ‘Greece’ means when people talk about it.”

So well-read.

Being “well-read” is like being “well-informed” or – since we might as well mourn what we can’t have right now – “well-traveled.” It might seem as if there’s a fine line between seeking to be well-read/-traveled just to brag about all the stamps in our passport/books we’ve read versus wanting to simply absorb information and experience. But I do think there’s a difference.

Let me tell you about my experience in June with two very different books.

In Amy and Isabelle, Elizabeth Strout’s debut novel, readers are treated to an exquisitely spot-on illustration of the mother-daughter relationship. From Amy’s “rebellion” and annoyance with her mother, to Isabelle’s “I just can’t help saying it” critiques and comments (followed by her “why did I say it that way?” self-beratement), the book displays Strout as a master of mining human connections. At one point, Isabelle – who is a single mother and works in a mill – decides to become “well-read.” After one encounter with Amy, who corrects her mother’s pronunciation of the poet William B. Yeats, Isabelle decides that she’s had enough of being a quiet outlier and will “educate herself” because she believes her daughter thinks she’s a “small-town dummy who worked in a mill.”

“The thought had come to her that morning as she watched Amy gathering her schoolbooks that she could educate herself. After all, she knew how to read. She could read and study just as though she were taking some course. Why not?” Later, at a bookstore, Isabelle spies her project. “Hamlet. Isabelle nodded as she walked over the carpet. She had heard of Hamlet, of course; there was a mother, and a girlfriend who went mad. Although she might be thinking of something else. Something Greek. At the cash register she felt anxious with the enormousness of what she was taking on. But the young clerk, whose chin was covered with a sprinkling of blond whiskers, rang up the purchase with indifference, and this pleased Isabelle. There was nothing in her appearance, evidently, that caused him to find it unusual that she was buying Shakespeare’s Hamlet. She must look the part. (She smiled, realizing she had made a small joke.)” Isabelle ends up devouring Hamlet, and then moves on to Madame Bovary, wherein she realizes that fiction can have an interesting way of allowing readers to navigate life.

Has Isabelle become “well read” with her exciting one-off excursion into Shakespearean tragedy? Probably not, according to the standards of an old-school, erudite Ivy League professor. But to me, yes, she has: Isabelle has tasted the joy of exploring a piece of information and making it hers.

One family, four nations in Beyond Babylon.

The second book I want to share about is Beyond Babylon, by Igiaba Scego, an Italian writer of Somali origin. (It is translated from the Italian to English by Aaron Robertson.) This novel, dense yet somehow fluid, creates a patchwork of one family’s three-generation experience between Italy, Tunisia, Somalia, and Argentina. Scego can’t help introducing other locales – even if not true “settings” in this story: Americans do X this way, the students from Japan are like Y, in Florianópolis people’s attitudes are like Z. So much of what I desire from a book is present in Beyond Babylon: People grappling with national/cultural identities, the funny intricacies of how mundane objects vary from location to location (i.e. toilets!), and what it means to not feel like you have a home, particularly because of tragedy.

Scego weaves the multiple narratives throughout the book; time is not linear. (As Miranda, who fled Argentina for Italy and is the mother of Mar, points out. “Memory is strange. I might not remember how the couscous I ate for lunch tasted, but I do remember how much energy it took to haul the groceries one day twenty-two years ago. I was spent.”)

One of Beyond Babylon’s time-shifting narratives follows cousins Mar and Zuhra (who also happen to be half-sisters, although they don’t know this) as they travel from Italy to Tunis – at their mothers’ insistence – for Arabic language school. This is a reverse migration of sorts since much of the novel illustrates the historical movement of people from Somalia (and Africa in general) to Italy. Instead of employing cloying language when describing Tunis, Scego writes: “Tunis didn’t seem like anything. It wasn’t Africa, it wasn’t Europe, it wasn’t the Middle East. It was everything blended together. A scrawl with traces of light. The shadows were numerous, the questions inexhaustible. Mar sensed a desire for change in the air, the subtle tension created by a dearth of freedom. [A friend] explained it clearly. ‘We’re sitting on a pressure cooker here. People don’t know whether to blow up or not. They just don’t, you know?’”

See? Writing about a destination is more than the tourist highlights. In her novel The Lake, Banana Yoshimoto writes about “the placeness of a place.” I love that. Travel isn’t just about the flowy descriptions of the smell of baguettes wafting in the air or the look of bright textiles in a Moroccan souk. It’s about an intangible feeling, which despite the somewhat wishy-washy nature of “the placeness of a place” is exactly what Scebo circles in Beyond Babylon. The simple ability to “feel” what a place is like actually positions us in the center of a location more than a recitation of facts or stereotypical descriptors.

At one point, Zuhra pontificates, “…maybe it’s the pain of no longer having a homeland that turns our brains to mush?” She’s talking specifically about one of her cousins who has become a Jehovah’s Witness, but can I go ahead and extrapolate that maybe all of our brains are turning to mush a bit during the pandemic? Even if we have a “homeland,” the way we are gathering “information” doesn’t come by way of travel or even enjoying the simple yet edifying act of having a great experience in a bookstore. Nope, the onus is completely on us.

I believe that being well-read and well-traveled are states of mind that are borne out of a rather simple desire to gather information. Let’s commit to being “well-read,” however that looks like for you. (I really don’t want my brain to turn to mush for much longer.)

These are apparently “modes of information seeking.” My vote is just “read.”

— Related:

  • Two reviews of Beyond Babyon: Here (from the LA Review of Books) and here.
  • The Economics of Moving; my post about The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto and “the placeness of a place.”




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