This summer I am embarking on a Southbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I am no ultra-light backpacker and I insist on always having a book to read in my pack. As the date for departure grows closer, I have started to think about which book I wanted to start out with. Whatever book I choose will set the tone for the rest of the trip and there are so many choices to make: one that I have not read before or an old favorite? fiction or non-fiction? Poetry or Prose? A tale of adventure to mirror my own or a story of social drama to distract me from the woods? A dense classic or a modern-day best-seller? The list goes on and on. It is not a decision to be taken lightly.
The rest of this could get kind of boring, so skip to the end if you just want to see what book I am starting out with!
First thought was Thoreau: he lived in Maine, spent his time walking the very mountains I will be, and has an essay on his own ascent of Katahdin (the starting point of my trek). I finally decided against him because I have already read a good bit of his writings and I want to broaden my source of wisdom. It seems there will be no old favorites at first. *compromise: I think I am going to have to rip out his essay on Katahdin and bring it with me. How could I not?
Second thought was any number of beat books. I have read a good bit of Kerouac and Burroughs, but both still have so much that I have not read. Their tales of ‘angel-headed hipsters’ and beatnik zen idealists traveling the country are enthralling. I ruled them out because I don’t want to escape from my trail experience, that defeats the purpose. I love their books because I can lose myself in their travels, but when I’m on this trek, I want to lose myself in my own travels. Also, some of their books are (partially) set in nature (i.e. Desolation Angels), but for the most part they thrive in the endless, dreary American cityscape I am hoping to get away from.
Classics came to mind -I have made it a personal quest of mine to read as many notable classic writers no matter how dense they may seem at times (I am currently reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce) and it is clear that there are certainly an abundance of ‘classics’ out there that I have yet to touch, but something tells me that as hard as it is to truly appreciate literature in the most perfect conditions now -I do not stand a chance after a full days worth of hiking.
Modern best sellers also came to mind. I have to say I don’t read much of these because I am so caught up in older writings, but I know I am missing out. Water for Elephants comes to mind, but also on my list is Malcom Gladwell’s latest What the Dog Saw. I wrote these off quickly because nothing came to mind that is truly pertinent to what my life will be on the trail.
Poetry I considered briefly as well. I am fascinated by Beat poetry as well as literature and also found enjoyment in slam poetry. The problem with either of these is that, while impressive, they contain themes of social injustice, addiction, city life, and the likes. Once again an urban take that doesn’t necessarily coincide with my hike. If you know of any modern or contemporary, raw, free verse, nature poets, please expose them to me.
After I went through all of that and more, I reached a conclusion. I guess I always knew that I would end up taking a philosophical book with me, but which one? I have read a lot of Krishnamurti lately and went to an inquiry in Ojai, CA a couple of weekends ago on his views of consciousness, and seeing how he has over 70 books published he’s definitely the obvious choice for me. Although, I do want to learn about different easter philosophies, Zen and Taoism to be more exact. Watts’ The Spirit of Zen is supposed to be a good introductory read, although it has received criticism from more traditional Zen practitioners (I think this is true for any westerner who tries to interpret eastern philosophy). I have read the Tao of Pooh and the Te of Piglet, but that is just a slight introduction to Taoism and to be quite frank, it has been a while since I have read them.
I will start my hike reading the Tao Te Ching. It isn’t too long (or too heavy) and has definitely withstood the test of time. I will read it slowly and repeatedly.
*Just to be on the safe side I also ordered The Spirit of Zen.*
Just a quick share of my knowledge. I order my books from half.com, which is ebay’s media site. Most books you will find under $5.00 in decent used condition (I bought Tao Te Ching and The Spirit of Zen for $0.75/book) and with media mail, you only pay a little over $3.00 shipping. Here’s the inside scoop -find the book you want and surf the “bookstore” accounts that have it for sale to see if they have other books you want to buy. When you buy more than one book from the same location, they charge you one more dollar for shipping versus another $3.50 or so. Chances are you will end up with more books than you need, but that isn’t really a bad thing
Other recommendations? I will have five to six months to gain a little bit of wisdom, but I do not want to escape (this doesn’t eliminate fiction, it just means a careful examination of the potential murder of presence by fiction).