To lug or not to lug: Kindle v the backpacker book-swap

Steve's backpack bursting with books

Steve's backpack bursting with books sits outside our tent

The world has been divided into two types of travellers – those that travel with a Kindle (or other electronic reader) and those that lug around books.

Between my day pack and my backpack at this current point in time I’m carrying five books. Steve is carrying closer to ten (plus most of the camping equipment – poor Steve!). It sounds like a mad thing to do in this day and age when electronic readers exist – but is it?

This is the first time I’ve backpacked – not so for Steve. Before we set out, while still in literature-loving London my well-travelled husband would sometimes say to me of our trip: “You know what I’m looking forward to – I’m looking forward to the time to read.”

He was right; reading is one of the great advantages of travel. However, what I’ve discovered is it’s not just about time – it’s about type. Backpacker reading is different; there is the searching, the finding, the sharing of books – and this is what Kindle readers miss.

Hostel book-swaps are wonderful things. It is thanks to George’s book-swap in Jinja, Uganda, that I read the 1930s Icelandic classic World Light. A masterpiece of poetry, love, lust, depravity, self-reflection, cutting social commentary plus politics, I had never heard of it and do not believe I would have ever read it if it had not been in that book-swap at that particular time.

Swapping books with travellers you’ve connected with is a delight, trawling through second-hand bookshops is always fun and the discovery of local literature excellent.

In English-speaking Nigeria I plunged into Calabar’s huge black market for books and emerged with a terribly printed (but very cheap) copy of Purple Hibiscus, a family tragedy set against the backdrop of a society in trouble, a modern version of Nigerian Nobel Laureate Chinua Achebe’s acclaimed 1950s novel Things Fall Apart (which I also bought).

How could I have lived these experiences if I had a Kindle?

I once read an interview with American author Nicole Krauss where she is quoted as worrying that in the West we are moving towards “the end of effort”.

She said: “We’ve arrived at this place where we just thoughtlessly plunge towards whatever the thing is that will allow us to make less effort. We know we’re diminishing experience. We know that it was richer to walk to the store, talk to the bookseller, maybe meet your neighbour than it is to click online. But we can’t stop ourselves. We’re programmed to do the ‘easier’ thing.”

Travelling by public transport in Africa is not easy. There are long days and big disappointments and the idea of being in my ‘comfort zone’ seems a distant memory. For me books are like old friends.

The moment I read Austen’s immortal line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” I am instantly transported to my teenage bedroom and my 14-year-old self.

I believe that if I was carrying around my whole library on an electronic chip during this trip the temptation to turn to such comfort favourites like Pride and Prejudice would be huge and I ‘d rarely read anything new. I would have missed so much.

For many travellers one of the great joys of travelling is talking to other travellers – for me it is reading their books.

Long live the traveller book-swap! Your backpack will burst at the seams as you lug around books you’ve finished waiting for that next great swap – but it will be worth it, damn it.

This is a travelling tradition I’m immensely grateful to my backpacking forbearers for starting and I just hope it will survive the age of the electronic reader. I beg it will still be going strong when my kids-to-be strap on their backpacks and head out into the big, wild, world to talk, read and learn.

Chrisanthi Giotis