I used to overpack for every trip. That meant more clothes than one person could wear, more options for outfits, more socks and underwear, full-sized bottles of shampoo (the horror!), and as many books as the stitching on my bag’s seams could handle.
Carrying more books than I would have ever read was a security blanket against boredom, against having to make a decision when packing, a talisman against the absence of back problems. It was about developing the skill to effortlessly carry a leaden bag like it’s filled with feathers, enjoying the winded grunts of well-meaning people who tried to lift the bag for me.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve done my best to slim down my baggage, decanting into TSA-approved bottle sizes, weeding out bulky sweaters and deciding how many pairs of leggings seem reasonable for a week away. And while I do bring fewer books, it’s impossible to strike at that sweet spot of enough to read and light enough to transport.
It’s about having the right book at the right time—sure, I want to finally get my teeth into Les Miserables while I have some free time, but waiting in the airport after being molested by security and running on only two hours of sleep, I’m not going to want to dive into a text that dense, or heaven forbid, French. No, that time is for a nibble of a beach read, a romance, the newest YA. And when I’m sad and homesick in a hostel with no one to talk to, that’s when I need the familiar comfort food—a chuckle at Christopher Moore, a snort at Douglas Adams.
E-readers should be the answer here. But I’ve traveled with a phone, Kindle and iPad for that purpose, and all they did was jangle around in my bag, exploding pixels and getting splashed when I spilled my coffee or pulled them out by the pool. There’s a time and place for them, but in some moments I need a good, old-fashioned paperback.
I met a woman on a bus across New Zealand who was traveling (like I was) and from the United States (like I am) and had even heard of the tiny town in Montana where I lived because she lived in another tiny town in Montana. She was also staying at the same hostel as I was that night, to speak of coincidences. I remember her because of these coincidences, because I watched The Martian for the first time with her that evening, because she was a sailor like me, because she was a writer too.
But most of all because she told me that she had decided to only bring one book on her several-years-long trip. One. I’ll say that again. One book. She would read the book and then leave it behind and find another one.
Maybe this isn’t revolutionary for some people. Perhaps others don’t struggle saying goodbye to hundreds of pages and thousands of words that have grown to be as vital as breathing over the hours or weeks it took to read them, but I clash with the concept.
Yet there’s something so romantic about leaving a trail of literature behind me as I traverse the world. I relish that idea, turn it over in my mind, try it on for size—for every country a new book and a crumb left behind for someone else. But I just can’t seem to lay the books down and walk away.
I used to hoard those left-behind books that you’re supposed to read and release, with the stamp on the title page that lets you track it online. I let them pile up, convincing myself I was just waiting for the right moment, the right place, the right person to pass them along. I held the fear that someone will pick the book off the bench, run after me, shout “wait, you left this!” Or worse yet, just toss it in the trash.
The only time I’ve succeeded in letting a book go on the road was on my first trip abroad. On the plane to Paris, I finished The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, and I left it with my couchsurfing host who was learning English. I don’t remember much about the book, but I still feel remorseful for leaving it behind.
This experiment makes me anxious—what if I can never find a copy of that book again? But my complaining back and straining bags insist that something’s gotta give. So I’ve made a resolution. I’m going to go away and bring one book with me. When I come back, I’ll only unpack one book. That way, the other twenty I’ve gathered along the way can stay safely hidden in my suitcase, and no one will ever know.