Virtual Travel in the Quarantine Times: Retro Books Edition

Hey, Reader Peeps! What’s the current travel situation in your neck of the woods?

International advisories change daily, but Americans are pretty much stuck hanging out with fellow Americans. Since we’re leading the world in coronavirus cases right now, you can’t really blame our global neighbors for not taking our calls. Or rather, our passports. 😜

Restrictions also change daily within the US, state by state, county by county, and city and city. Here in Hawaii, we’ve been under a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all airport arrivals (tourists and traveling residents alike) for several months. That had kept Covid cases down, but also kept out tourist dollars.

Honolua Bay at sunrise. Maui, HawaiiOur previous inter-island quarantine was relaxed in June. The rest of the state continues to have few new cases, but Oahu has recently seen significant spikes. There are concerns that if this continues, the most populous island could exceed their ICU capacity by the end of the month. This prompted the governor, at the urging of neighbor islands, to partially reinstate the inter-island quarantine yesterday. 

In other words, not only are we not having lattes on Paris’s Left Bank or beignets by a Louisiana bayou, we won’t even be finning with the fishies and turtles in Maui’s Honolua Bay again anytime soon.

Say it with me now: Island Fever.

But remember, Reader Peeps, as it becomes more and more difficult for each of us to be wherever we are, there are still some sanity-saving options.

Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.

—Anna Quindlen

I was doing some cleaning over the weekend, shifting furniture and books—always books—and it struck me. Not only are the stories contained within the books portals into other worlds, the books themselves are portals into our own pasts. At least physical books are (apologies to my ereader).

Pick up any book from your shelves and ask where it came from.

Was it a gift? Maybe an inside joke (Moby Dick from my college BFF, and no it’s not about porn) or a thoughtful token (Wrinkle in Time from my husband, who knows how much I loved it as a child) or an outside-the-box, take-a-chance gift (Me Before You, from my mother-in-law, probably the only romance I have ever finished, and I actually enjoyed it).

Perhaps you’re a book stalker, and the title was one of your hard-won victories, the next in your favorite series that you located at the seventh used bookstore you’d tried, fifteen minutes before closing time, and paid for with exact change down to your last penny.

In the days before internet sites were optimized to feed the plastic-equipped and book-hungry.

Quick digression: Merriam-Webster’s first definition of the verb stalk is: “to pursue quarry or prey stealthily.” Why do you think we’re so quiet in libraries and bookstores?

Some books carry their history stamped on their covers or pages.

The sale stickers are faded to illegibility, but I’ll never forget snagging both of Barbara Mertz’s deliciously readable Egyptian histories—Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs and Red Land, Black Land—during my pilgrimage to Strand Bookstore in New York City.

(Yes, the Barbara Mertz who also wrote the amazing Amelia Peabody Mysteries as Elizabeth Peters.)

I visited Strand so long ago that the 8 miles lauded on my old bookmark has grown—according to their website—to 18 miles of books. 😷 (My properly masked emoji fainted away at the prospect.)

Transferring these Brother Cadfael books and a pile of their brethren to another shelf, I was reminded of when my husband and I caught the Ellis Peters bug.

It doesn’t exactly take a detective to figure it out—the books all came from the same Louisiana city, Metairie, which is part of the New Orleans metro area. The sheer quantity suggests we purchased them while living in New Orleans rather than visiting family.

Hunting them down did require trips to multiple stores. Or more likely (as is usually the case), we were unable to pass any bookstore without walking inside. Then, after the required initial aimless ramble—bookstore rules, you know it’s true—we targeted more of what we’d been reading most recently.

I’ve shared that Travis McGee is the man who “unbroke” me from reading fiction during law school in New Orleans. It’s not surprising then that I have a stack of John D. MacDonald purchased largely from those Metairie bookshops as well.

However, it seems appropriate that books about the “salvage consultant” were scavenged from multiple locations, including this one from Lafayette. I worked in Acadiana after law school as a legal aid attorney. (Apparently The Book Rack is a popular name for used bookstores in Louisiana.)

Not a fan of used bookstores (heathen), or can’t remember where you picked up your tomes?
Bookmarks are also a great travel prompt.

I have bookmarks spanning several years and graphic design incarnations from one family favorite New Orleans bookstore. My mother-in-law often gifts from there, and my husband and I try to drop in whenever we’re uptown. In fact, he’s re-reading a book he picked up there right now. (It’s on my TBR, as soon as I finish the rest of my library books!)

Here are a few bookmarks I’ve come by locally, to whet your tropical reading appetite. The gallery/restaurant has few very books, but it is a great place to read them! With a cup of coffee, and a pastry… sigh.

I haven’t been there since the weekend before Covid shut things down. But I have visited both of the bookstores in the past month and they still have books. (Stories of The End Times have been exaggerated.) Admittedly they do have slightly fewer books now than when my husband and I walked in. 😉

So when you’re ready to melt down again, and there’s no Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer—THERE IS NO BEN & JERRY’S IN OUR FREEZER, EITHER!—take a deep breath and start pulling books off the shelves.

Don’t throw them unless you have to.

And when one makes you smile with remembrance, or sits in your hand like it belongs there, fix yourself a beverage of your choice and find a comfy chair. It’s time for some new scenery.