Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Weight of Words

Here’s my dilemma: what book do I take on my backpacking trip? Husband, dog, and I are going on a hike on the Appalachian Trail Wednesday through Friday of next week. Of course, I have to take a book with me; the thought of spending three days in the woods without a book is terrifying. Actually, being anywhere without a book is terrifying.

But the problem with backpacking is that I want to carry as little weight as possible, and books can be heavy. Husband and I have worked very hard to get our pack weights down; these days I’m setting out with between 30 and 35 pounds and returning with a pack probably well below 30 (after I’ve eaten all my food). We’ve gotten the light-weight tent and the light-weight packs, we’ve ditched the stove and now we only eat cold food, we’ve gotten light-weight shoes, we’ve done everything but cut off the ends of our toothbrushes (and we’re considering that). So the weight of the book I bring is significant. What’s the point of buying a light sleeping pad if I bring a heavy book? The book can’t be heavy, and it can’t be super short either: what if I finish my book early? Then I’m stuck with nothing to read, or with having to read the book again. You can see, I think, that the decision matters.

Certainly a hardcover or a library book is out of the question, not only because of weight but because the book might get soaked through with rain, eaten by wild animals, dropped in a stream, hurled over a cliff, or otherwise lost and ruined. I’ve thought that the best option is one of those mass market paperbacks because of their high word to weight ratio. Who needs the big margins of a trade paperback? That’s wasted weight! The more words, and the smaller the words, the better. I want to be able to spend a lot of time on each page, to make that book last as long as possible.

But maybe I should look at the weight issue from another perspective entirely: what about the weight of the words themselves? By that I mean, their intellectual “heft.” Maybe I don’t need a larger number of words; maybe what I need is greater complexity and depth in those words. In that case, a slim book of poetry might do the trick. Yes, those books have huge margins, and very few words per page, and not many pages, but, on the other hand, poetry rewards lingering a long time over those words, and I read through a book of poetry slowly. Poetry invites you to read and re-read, so it wouldn’t be as big of a deal if I finished it before the trip ended.

But, to be honest with myself, it’s not just that I can’t venture into the woods for a few days without a book, I can’t do it without a narrative, a narrative preferably in prose. Poetry is great and all for home, but it wouldn’t be satisfying as the only book I have while traveling. I’ll have to opt for the mass market I think.

All this doesn’t even broach the problem, however, of what I want to read about. Do I want something about nature, the outdoors, travel, or walking? An adventure story? Or do I want something completely different, something that takes place in drawing rooms? Usually I opt for something not related at all to hiking, often an 18th or 19th century novel, sometimes something contemporary. I’ve taken this and this before. After spending all day outside, I’m often ready to crawl into the tent and focus on a world very different from the one I’m in.

Although I love backpacking, it is anxiety inducing to think of heading into the woods without access to a bookstore or to my bookshelves. So, thank God I have a week (almost) to decide what to bring.