At the moment I am writing this, there must be around three thousand summer reading lists doing the rounds of Greek websites and blogs. I wish there were lists like that for all other seasons too: to some of us, they are far more appealing and far more conducive to reading.
The lists are long; they include loads of new releases, book prizes, books that have made an impression, books that have become serial posts in the social media, then made the rounds and – as no intellectual would ever actually say – made a splash.
It is with these lists in mind that I pack a dozen books in my suitcase – and a hundred more on my Kindle device, because loads of books are free online: having the possibility of immediately replacing a book that falls short of its promises, is priceless. So what if the novel that got off to a dynamic start is now lagging and its characters have become utterly predictable? Away with that!
There are three summers that I associate with three books on three different islands. Or three islands I associate with three books. Or three summers I associate with three islands because of three different books. Whatever. These books weren’t on any list whatsoever, mind you, nor were they in the small bundle of books I had prepared before my departure. I found them on the shelves of rented rooms and small hotels. They were worn and torn by their unknown previous owners, sea-salted and Mediterranean sun-kissed and faded. That’s my guess. Because we never really know what a used book has been through.
Literature professor Pierre Bayard once wrote: “to say that we have read a book is a figure of speech. In reality, we have only read part of the book, smaller or larger, and this part will disappear after a while anyway. Consequently, it’s not books we converse with, but ourselves and others; it is with ourselves and with others that we talk about these muddled reflections that get recast in light of any current prevailing conditions.”
We do not, then, remember the books we’ve read. But maybe we remember how they made us feel. Or where we were, or whom we were with whilst reading them. What we looked at when we glanced up from their pages.
Three different hotel owners who, thoughtfully enough, created a small reading library as part of their common facilities and services, have granted me the opportunity to indulge in three classic novels, in three different places in Greece, over three different summers.
On the island of Thassos, I discovered Gustav Flaubert’s Sentimental Education.
On the island of Kea, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
On the island of Kythera, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler.
Reading Sentimental Education, I found myself immediately identifying with the ambitions of the young student, Frederic. His unrequited love for Madame Arnoux will always be located in that beautiful village on Thassos, Megalo Kazaviti, under its huge plane tree, where I entered my space-time black hole and found myself transported to C19 Parisian salons. Flaubert’s excruciating detail in describing various dishes made me order double shots of tsipouro with extra stuffed courgette flowers on the side, ending up at least two kilos heavier by the end of my stay. A Sentimental Education and John Fowle’s The Magus remain my two favourite books to this day.
On Kea, Thoreau was my undoing. I kept feeling I had conducted my life all wrong. Completely immersed during the winter time in studios and meeting rooms, working on marketing and advertising, I had not felt Nature calling at any point. Only deadlines called. The burrs of the trees, the buzzing of beetles, the stamens of flowers became the centre of my whole existence in this wonderful introduction to natural mysticism. I would get up at 6 o’clock in the morning to read Walden, with an ideal soundtrack of roosters, church bells, and sea trawls burring in the horizon. The geraniums in the courtyard stopped being simply geraniums; they had life; they had character. If a bumblebee bothered me during my reading, I would no longer jump from my seat, ready to kill it off with the help of a flip-flop, a newspaper, or a poisonous spray. Quite the opposite; I welcomed it in like a hotel guest and granted it the right to fly low, even in front of my nose. Walden was the perfect manual to mediate between my existence and the existence of all our living roommates on Planet Earth.
But I never expected a writer such as Dostoyevsky to make me laugh even in my sleep. And that’s what happened to me on Kythera, in a nice hotel complex in Avlemonas, where I found quite a large library in the breakfast room. Every morning, I would look up from breakfast and see The Gambler on the bookcases opposite. On the first day, I thought none of it. On the second day, I picked up the book, read the front and back flaps, put it back on the shelf. On the third day, I put away the book I had brought from Athens and, finishing my scrambled eggs, I picked The Gambler up and shoved it in my beach bag. The Grandmother – a secondary character in the story, but the one I remember most vividly – made me laugh so hard that, together with Guy de Maupassant’s Boule de Suif, I consider her my favourite literary anti-heroine.
To make a long story short: libraries in Bed and Breakfasts or hotels are more than useful: they are essential. Reading needs time and commitment. And there’s no better time for a reader to meet a great story than when one is relaxed. So put together those libraries, fill them with books, make some new readers out there! (And if you don’t know how to make good scrambled eggs, please, take them off the menu. It’s better to serve them traditionally, with fresh tomato and thyme from your own garden, anyways).