Contrary to popular misconception, traveling for an extended period of time isn’t always fascinating, or stimulating or fun even. Between 20-hour bus rides, long ticket queues and unpredictable check-in times, there’s a lot of downtime to deal with. Some people prefer catching power naps or listening to music, while others play games or peruse train station gift shops. Yet nothing quite transports you (or kills time) like a good book. The beauty of this habit is that in many cases, you can do it for free- without lugging around your entire bookshelf. Hostels all over the world have adopted a sort of global lending library, where travelers from all over the world can exchange a finished tome for a brand new one before continuing on their journey. Across Latin America, throughout Western Europe and from one side of Japan to another, here is a list of my top 10 book exchange finds from around the globe.
1.Letters to Milena by Franz Kafka
Pining, passionate and romantic, this epistolary book consists of three years worth of love letters from Kafka to Milena Jesenská, a married woman trapped in her own troubled life. The out-of-print book was a rare (and heart-wrenching) find in Paris.
2.Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Published in 1945, Cannery Row is Steinbeck’s definitive book of characters. Mack, the booze-guzzling bum; Doc, the kind-hearted marine biologist; and Dora, the saucy brothel owner, are all richly portrayed in this short, simple book. The frog-hunting scene is best read out loud- to a friend. Found in Valparaíso, Chile.
3. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
The Holy Grail for backpackers trekking through South America; Chatwin’s 1977 novel virtually redefined the travel writing genre. Chatwin interweaves historical events (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) with personal anecdotes about his own strange quest for the origins of a mylodon skin that belonged to his grandmother. Also found in Valparaíso.
4. Pnin by Vladimir Nabakov
Professor Timofey Pavlovich Pnin is the dubious (and hysterically inept) anti-hero of Nabokov’s 13th novel. Set in the United States, the Russian-born emigrant bumbles from one situation to another, struggling to make sense of life in America. A linguistic treat found in Berlin.
5. Naked by David Sedaris
One afternoon, waiting for a train from Munich to Vienna, I started up a conversation with a boy from Boston who suggested we switch books right then and there. He took my battered copy of Pnin (already read three times in a row) and I got his almost-new Sedaris. The collection of essays are fun, dark, and sadly touching. Found in a Munich train station.
6. The Long Ships by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson
An entertaining homage to Vikings, wenches, strong ale and the importance of growing a good beard; The Long Ships is a best-selling staple in Sweden. Written with a surprisingly modern brand of humor, this book was found in Mendoza, Argentina.
7. Everything’s Eventual by Stephen King
This collection of 14 short stories by the master of the macabre is a chilling, guilty pleasure. With stories inspired by John Dillinger; a painting that changes (and kills!); kinky witch sisters; and an evil hotel room, it’s hard to put down. Found in Tamarindo, Costa Rica.
8. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Wrongful accusations, jail breaks, vengeance, alter egos, riches, mercy and death… Dumas’ 1844 epic has it all. Found in Cusco, Peru.
9. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Though the novel opens with a death, Kitchen transcends the themes of grief and loneliness. As the title implies, food plays an integral role, as do transsexuality, identity and contemporary Japanese culture. Found in Kyoto, Japan.
10. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
I actually brought this book with me to Latin America, making it something of a cheater, but come on; is there any better traveling companion than Kerouac’s seminal novel about life on the road?
[Photo by the author]