Well Read columnist Robert Weibezahl is visiting the blog today to talk about his trips to notable literary locales!
Traveling by the book
guest post by Robert Weibezahl
I read for a living. Well, read and write. So I have a perhaps slightly shameful confession to make: unlike most booklovers, when I go on vacation I don’t read much. Oh, I always take books along. Sometimes three or four. But by journey’s end, they tend to remain mostly unread.
And yet, as an inquisitive traveler and enthusiastic bibliophile, no trip seems quite whole without books—to wit, in cities cosmopolitan and countryside bucolic, I find myself invariably drawn to bookstores and libraries. None of many visits to Portland, for instance, has passed without hours spent in Powell’s. On a trip through Wales more than a decade ago, the border town of Hay-on-Wye—where some 30 used bookstores live cheek by jowl—beckoned irresistibly, while on another U.K. trip, a book-loving friend and I tracked down an old manor house cum used bookstore in the middle of nowhere in, I think, Buckinghamshire, stuffed to its Victorian rafters with well-priced reading treasures (I have forgotten its name and exact location, and a Google search has come to naught, suggesting that this magical place is long gone—or perhaps only appears one day every hundred years like Brigadoon).
In Victoria, Canada, Munro’s must be on the itinerary (started 50 years ago by Jim Munro and his then-wife, Alice. Yes, that Alice). In Seattle, Elliot Bay; in San Francisco, City Lights. And then, the libraries. A trip to the Berkshires warranted a side trip to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. College tours with my daughter led to the Beinecke at Yale, the Bancroft at Berkeley, and Vassar’s Gothic gem. I imagine every book-loving traveler has compiled his or her list of favorites—the Rosenbach, the Newberry or, on a grander scale, the Library of Congress or the venerable New York Public Library, are just a few of the possibilities.
So, it was inevitable that a recent trip to Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands included some impromptu biblio-tourism. I first visited the British Library in London 25 years ago, when it was housed in an often overlooked part of the massive British Museum. It now has its own strikingly modern building up the road near St. Pancreas train station, where, in addition to books and manuscripts by Shakespeare, Wilde and Conrad, the free exhibit of treasures on display includes the 1225 reissue of the Magna Carta, original handwritten lyrics by Paul McCartney and John Lennon (including those to “A Hard Day’s Night” scribbled on the back of one of young Julian’s birthday cards), and Jane Austen’s writing desk. The library of King George III is dramatically displayed in a six-story glass tower that forms the core of the building.
On to Brussels, where we ventured a dozen stops on the utilitarian Metro, out into the suburbs and a most unusual bookstore. Cook & Book occupies two wings of a small cultural center/shopping mall in Sint-Lambrechts-Woluwe. There are nine distinct (and distinctive) rooms, divided by literary category, including one featuring only English-language books, each decorated with thematic exuberance.
With lots of self-help, humor, and even a healthy supply of manga on its shelves, Cook & Book is a not necessarily the most literary of bookstores. Yet, what sets this place apart (and accounts for the first half of its name) is that each room is both bookstore and café, with food being served at tables scattered among the bookshelves. The beer sales probably keep the place financially afloat.
Last stop was Amsterdam, where, not knowing a word of Dutch, bookstores and libraries were not on our intended itinerary. It was a delightful surprise, then, to walk through a door on the second floor of the monumental Rijksmuseum and encounter its inviting research library—a beautifully ornamented, multi-story room that houses the most extensive art history library in the Netherlands, its origins dating to 1885.
As with the British Library, you must apply for permission to actually use the library collection, but for most the delight is simply in the looking.
St. Augustine said “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” I would add that the world is full of books, found in all sorts of interesting places. Seeking them out makes for some memorable page-turning.