Friday, December 08, 2006

Let's play a game

Let’s play a game called “What have I got in my rucksack?”

Well, it’s not much of a game really since I am going to tell you the answer. Now, I could go through the whole list:

three short-sleeved cotton t-shirts
two long-sleeved thermal shits
two pairs of Carhartt dungarees
one pair of hiking shorts
three pairs of wool-synthetic blend socks
three pairs of boxer shorts
first aid kit
two toothbrushes and one tube of toothpaste, soap and shampoo
malaria and diarrhea medication
laptop computer and associated hardware
one pair of Chaco sandals, one pair of sturdy hiking/working shoes
one Nalgene 1 L water bottle and iodine tablets for purification
one rain jacket
one Leatherman multi-tool
and so on…

But that’s all very mundane, and what I really want to get to are the books I have brought along with me and acquired since arriving in Thailand.

I should mention at the outset that I am well acquainted with the first and second cardinal rules of backpacking, which specify that one ought to minimize both the number of articles in one’s pack as well as the weight of things being carried, and that carrying around a selection of several books tends to run one afoul of both of these rules. But for the past few years I have contracted a case of chronic book acquisition syndrome and it would be presumptuous to expect that an extended journey around Southeast Asia would produce an immediate cure for this condition.

So let’s begin our game of “What books am I lugging around in my rucksack?”

The first two books, and I mention them first to get them out of the way, for I doubt that they truly count against the total tally in this game, are from the Lonely Planet series and they are a guide to Thailand as well as a Thai phrasebook.

The phrasebook is small enough to fit comfortably in the front pocket of my Carhartt dungarees, and owing to this physical characteristic of the book I assumed, wrongly, that its contents would be readily mastered on the plane ride from San Francisco to Asia. It turns out that Thai is a very difficult language, especially for Westerners, not least because it is tonal in nature. This means that there are about six different meanings for any one given word based upon how it is spoken -- with an up or down inflection, an accent here or there, and other such subtle differences. Thus far I have nearly mastered all of two phrases: “Sa wat dii, KAP” which means “Hello (I am a man)”, and, “kap kun KAP” which means “Thank you (I am a man).” The “KAP” at the end of the phrases is the part signifying my masculinity. If I were a woman, I would substitute “KAA.” I’m not sure why it is important to continually assert one’s gender during the course of a common conversation, but I am a guest in a foreign land so I play along respectfully.

With the requisite Lonely Planet guides out of the way, I will give 5 Baht (about $0.15) to the first person who can guess one of the books in my traveling collection.

Congratulations! Of course I brought my haggard and dog-eared copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. A 5 Baht bonus will be awarded if you guessed that I brought along the sequel to this book, entitled Lila, as well. If I get through ZAMM before New Year’s that makes for six times (I think) that I have read that book this year. It may be the most important book ever. I’m not sure about this, but all the same you should run out to your local used bookstore and buy a copy right now and read it, over and over again if necessary, until you have sufficiently absorbed its messages. I predict that it will either cause a complete revolution in your life and the way you think about yourself and the world, or you will get a little way into it and decide “hey, this guy’s really mean to his kid, and he’s kind of an asshole to his friends as well”, and you’ll put the book aside and maybe forget about it completely. Then one day, someone in your life, probably me, will bring it up and say, “have you read Zen and the Art…” and you will say, “Oh yeah, I think I read that, maybe in college or high school, I forget, wasn’t he really mean to his son or something?” and I will sigh and suggest you revisit it. And then maybe the whole process will begin again.

Enough! On with the game. I can’t spend that much writing about one book, important a book though it is.

What to mention next? OK, how about E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. I don’t know anything about this one -- it was given to me by my good friend Mary the night before I left for Asia. It looks interesting, and I am eventually going to India so maybe it has some important stuff I’ll need to know before I get there.

Next is a volume from the German Library Series of two of Herman Hesse’s stories: Siddhartha, and Demian. I read all of Siddhartha on the plane from Taipei to Bangkok and it blew my mind. I always read myself into books, but this one was really about me, man! Really! This is another one to run out and buy right away. Maybe it’s about you too. Or maybe not, but if you read it you might understand me better. (I’m sure that understanding me is a very high priority for most of you since I am such an important person in all of your lives.) I finished Demian last night and it was very good as well.

The next book represents a very high mountain to scale indeed: James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I really want to get Joyce; perhaps I am asking too much of myself. I remember in college when I was taking an advanced physics course on subatomic particles and the professor told us that the name “quarks” came from a James Joyce novel, Finnegan’s Wake. So of course I ran right out and bought it, read the first three pages, closed the book and put it on my bookshelf and there it has remained since.

Next (this is beginning to seem crazy isn’t it? To carry all these books around! Well, wait, it gets better. We still haven’t finished the books I brought with me. After that come the books I have bought since I arrived…)

Next is The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry. I am very excited to read this, since I’ve read many of Berry’s essays and he is my hero. I’m getting more and more into this farming thing, and here we have a brilliant farmer, philosopher, essayist and poet, and fellow Appalachian to boot! What could be better?

And finally, of the books I brought with me from California, well, it’s a section of a book really, photocopied. This one was hard bound and I only wanted certain parts so I managed to make copies just before I left. The excerpts are from a biography of Werner Erhard by William Bartley III. Werner Erhard, nee Jack Rosenberg, is the guy who invented est, the controversial philosophical training seminar that began in San Francisco in the 1970’s. The current form of est still going on is called the Landmark Forum, of which I took two courses this year. I’m still trying to work out just what the hell happened to me in the Landmark forum, and Bartley’s biography of Erhard goes lengths to expound upon the philosophy that underlies est and Landmark. Landmark is kind of like a course in practical Existentialism, and also draws heavily on Zen Buddhism. I know people think Landmark is creepy or cultish, but it really helped me and is continuing to do so, so I am very keen to understand just how it works and to develop a practice of my own for increasingly being “powerfully engaged with reality,” as they say.

OK, now on to the books that I have added to my traveling collection since I arrived in Thailand. (One thing about touristy Chiang Mai is that there are a bunch of great used bookshops, because truly clever backpackers, unlike me, tend to unload books rather than accumulate them.)

In keeping with my burgeoning interest in Existentialism, I picked up a copy of Sartre’s Nausea. I’ve started it, but I’m not sure if I will like it, or even get it. I know Sartre’s the apotheosis of Existentialism and if I ever want to call myself an Existentialist I have to get him, but I don’t know if I can groove on Nausea. (Hey, did anyone get that joke about “calling myself an Existentialist”? What could be more un-Existentialist than to shoehorn one’s self, whatever that is, into some reductionist conceptual pigeonhole?) Anyway, maybe I’ll end up doing an end-run around Sartre and go right back to Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky and figure it out myself, eminent French philosophers aside.

OK, two more and we’re done. At least until the bookshops open tomorrow morning.

Nope, I lied, I see there are three more.

One: A history of Western philosophy by Bertrand Russell entitled The Wisdom of the West.

Two: A collection of lectures by Buddhist scholar Alan Watts entitled Buddhism: The Religion of No-Religion.

Three: Being Peace, a collection of essays by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn.

Well, that’s it. Apparently I’m interested in philosophy. In fact this is so. This winter, to the extent that I am anything, I am a farmer and a philosopher. I know very, very little about either farming or philosophy. I am here to learn.

No comments: