Sunday, October 26, 2008

Books for Walkers


by Stephen Graham

You need a book, but you cannot carry Gibbon's Decline and Fall with you, even if you feel the need. The tramp's library is limited, for books are heavy. It is best to tramp with one book only. But it is a missed opportunity not to have one book. For you can gain an intimacy with a book and an author in that way, which it is difficult to obtain in a library or in the midst of the rush of the books of the season.

Each will have his choice though many will choose alike. The inexperienced may pop the latest yellow-back into the rucksack, not grasping that it will be read through in two lazy afternoons, and that then he will have no book to fall back upon. In the trenches in France a happy habit developed of leaving read books upon dry ledges in the dugouts. One often came upon a treasure trove of the kind. But when tramping, you cannot leave books for others with much hope of their being found. And rarely does one find any stray literature unless it be some tract on the futility of sin.

It is better, therefore, to take with one a whole-time book. It is good to have a book that is full of meat, one with broad margins for scribblings and extra pages for thoughts, poems, thumb-nail sketches. After a long tramp it is nice to see a book which has been clothed with pencilings. It records in a way the spiritual life of the adventure, and will recall it to you when in later years you turn over the page again.

It is well to take a book that you do not quite understand, one that you have already nibbled at but have found difficult. I do not mean an abstruse work, but one you are just on the verge of understanding and making your own.

At different stages of development you will have different books. A boy just beginning to think could do worse than take The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, or Thoreau's Walden; a little later comes Erewhon or E├Âthen.

At eighteen Sartor Resartus or Carpenter's Towards Democracy, or Browning's "Paracelsus." A good deal depends on temperament as to whether a volume of Shelley or Keats will keep you company all the while. You read and reread a poem that you like until it begins to sing in your mind. It becomes your possession. There are marvelous passages lying hidden in a poem like "Paracelsus":

Ask the gier-eagle when she stoops at once
Into the vast and unexplored abyss,
What full-grown power informs her from the first,
Why she not marvels strenuously beating
The silent, boundless regions of the sky!

It is a poem of a man seeking life, seeking a way. It ought to move most young men who are on the threshold of life, unless they are dull or have been infected by cynicism. For my part, I look back loyally to the time when I was Paracelsus and could say his lines as from my own heart: "'Tis time new hopes should animate the world," I whispered as I walked, and the new hopes were my hopes.

Much of "Paracelsus" should go into the true Tramp's Anthology, and with it, not contradicting it, Omar Khayyam and also O'Shaughnessy's

We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams
Wandering by lone sea-breakers
And sitting by desolate streams.

and then certain delicious lines, untraced in origin, which Algernon Blackwood is fond of quoting:

Change is his mistress. Chance his counsellor.

Love cannot hold him. Duty forge no chain.
The wide seas and the mountains call him
And grey dawns know his campfire in the rain.

An ideal book to carry on a tramping expedition is undoubtedly an anthology of your own compiling, a notebook filled with your favorite verses.

Other books which I think of as the tramp grows in goodness and in grace are Ibsen's Peer Gynt or Brand, preferably Peer Gynt, there is much more in it. Peer Gynt is a very remarkable book; you can read it ten times and still fail to exhaust its poetry, its thought. It is a great book about life. It is moreover a true tramping book. Peer is a vagabond wandering about in the world, and it is never the world which is in question, but the state of his soul. Brand is not so much of a poem as the other, and is not so memorable. But it raises some of the eternal questions in a powerful way. If you are "sick of towns and men," Brand will rather indulge your mood, for it speaks Ibsen's impatience with the petty ways and lives of average men and women.

Socrates' Dialogues go well in the inner pocket, and so do Horace's Odes, if you are of a Horatian turn of mind and can read them. There are many, especially in Scotland, who like to take a Homer, and fancy themselves on the hills of Greece. For a classical scholar there are many books of profound and lasting interest; a Plotinus will last you a long while. For you have not merely to read it, but to resurrect a being who lived centuries ago in a different civilization. The human heart was the same, but almost everything else had a difference.

If the mind is just attracted to ancient philosophy, I know few books to compare with Pater's Plato and Platonism, for inner worth. I do not, however, think his Marius a good tramping book. Nature rebels against its cold chaste beauty. It needs, I think, a more artificial setting for its enjoyment.

Few novels are good tramping books. One gets through the story so quickly, and if there is no more than story there, the book is finished with. Still, there are a few knapsack companions worth having, such as The Cloister and the Hearth, John Inglesant, Wilhelm Meister, Dostoieffsky's The Brothers Karamazoff. All rather bulky, I am afraid, for ideas, though they keep other books thin, do swell the volume of a novel. A few ideas stated in conversation and baited with picturesque descriptions take three times the space they need in the essay. It is sometimes easier to understand them, but the expression is diffuse.

Plays, however, come near to being ideal. They take up little space. The dramatist has to censor his own work vigorously with a view to cutting down the excess of verbiage which his ideas naturally claim. He is forced into paradox and epigram. His work is full of hints and suggestions which are undeveloped. It is for you to develop them. As Ibsen said, "I ask the questions; it is for you to answer them.'

A Shakespeare play is a delightful library. I nearly always take one. A drama like Richard Ill or Othello can be read over and over again. As You Like It and A Midsummer Night's Dream are the great open-air plays. You learn more about them with the birds and the stars to teach you than with the aid of the most genial producer or inspired professor. You make your camp in a natural theater among the trees, or in an arena among the rocks. There is an audience not altogether invisible. It waits, it has its programs, you have the book of the words and the brain full of moving figures. Sun and moon are working the limelight from the wings. Your campfire is the footlights. Enter Man. Enter Hamlet. Enter Julius Caesar, the gods, the ghosts. The tramp becomes an ancient type, a magician, a mystagogue--with a Shakespeare in his hand, in the midst of the worlds.

If modern drama rouses the fancy, you can take a Pirandello or a Shaw, and thresh it out--get a real opinion about it. It is worthwhile when you have to orientate your mind to certain writers of repute to make yourself intimate with at least one of their works.

I suppose some may prefer to read a book on the country through which they are tramping, and in that case a librarian's aid may be sought. There are now scores of volumes on almost every country in the world. It is as well to look over several of them before making a choice- many prove to be slaplash, ill-informed compositions.

Does one take accounts of travel in lands other than that one is tramping in? I imagine not. Unknown Arabia is out of place in a tramp through California. But a tramp's account of his own life is interesting reading anywhere, and one naturally thinks of W. H. Davies' autobiography in this connection. There are few tramp writers. But probably the best short story of Maxim Gorky's tells of his tramping life, and is called "The Fellow Traveller." Jack London's Valley of the Moon contains some tramping episodes. Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, Cunninghame Graham, Belloc, Chesterton, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, are all delightful writers in the tramping mood and ask a place in the knapsack. Then there are Harry Franck's untiring pedestrian tours in Patagonia, China, and elsewhere, perhaps in too ponderous a form as yet for field use.

I once met a tramping publisher, rara avis, a very black swan; he began his life as a colporteur of the British and Foreign Bible Society and spent twenty years on the road, going from Bibles to leaflets, which he printed himself, and thence to booklets, thence to books and an office and a vast organization. He had a simple way of business. I handed him a manuscript; he opened a drawer and handed out a wad of notes, and the transaction was concluded without a word in writing. But I suppose that was unusual even in his business. There was a savor of tramp meeting tramp in the affair.

The Bible colporteur ought, at least, to know one book the better for his calling. When all is said, there is one book more worth taking then all the rest; poetry, philosophy, history,' fantasy, treatise, novel and drama, you have all 'in one in the Bible, the inexhaustible book of books. You need not take it all, take the prophecies, the Psalms, the Gospels. It means much to tramp with one Gospel in the inner pocket of the coat.

--from The Gentle Art of Tramping. Copyright (c) 1926 by D. Appleton and Co.


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