The man who loved books in Turkey

For Lisa Michaels, an encounter with a book-starved shopkeeper in Turkey provides a new perspective on literary packing.


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Lisa Michaels
December 4, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

Last spring, when setting out for two months in Turkey, my husband and I had no trouble making a quick selection of T-shirts and toiletries. But when it came to picking books, we paused, weighing each one, literally, in our hands. Packing reading material for a long vacation on the cheap is like packing for travel in a light aircraft: That dead weight will come to haunt you. My husband solves this problem by choosing thick volumes that promise weeks of reliable pleasure: "David Copperfield," say. I, on the other hand, want to bring a good helping of the smorgasbord I have back home, an array sufficient to give me the illusion of whimsy. I recognize that rueful expression my husband wears when we plan a weekend out of town and I rush around assembling a foot-high stack of books -- more printed matter than I could get through in a lazy week at home. Time after time, he's watched me lug most of it back unread.

This time, I couldn't afford to overpack: Our trip was to be done without porters or rented cars. Whatever I chose, I would carry on my back. In the end, I set out for Istanbul with 10 pounds of books, among them Coleman Barks' translations of Rumi (I planned to visit the mystic's tomb); "Innocents Abroad"; Mary Lee Settle's "Turkish Reflections"; and a couple things that had been recommended to me -- Dale Peck's "The Law of Enclosures," "Out of Egypt" by Andri Aciman.

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This was a healthy stack, but by the time I reached southern Turkey a month later, I had finished them all. It was a relief, then, when I saw, in a seaport town on the Aegean, a sign that said, "Used Books, Libros." I followed the arrow down a cobbled street and came to a tiny bookshop, not much bigger than a walk-in closet. The stone floor sloped to one side and the walls were fixed with rickety shelves. No one was in attendance, only a cat carefully shredding a well-shredded chair, so I started browsing. The English-language titles were dust-smeared and covered one wall: Barbara Taylor Bradford novels, lots of Agatha Christie, a small section of out-of-date guidebooks -- "Europe on $5 a Day" -- made quaint by inflation. They were mostly standard fare, yet here and there were a few surprises: Isherwood's "Christopher and His Kind," "The Virgin Suicides" by Jeffrey Eugenides.

It was an alphabetized discard pile, a whole inventory delivered by vacationers. Each volume held the story of a person who had passed through the town: a social worker who devoured this Patricia Cornwell mystery in one of the cafes above the harbor, glad to have no responsibility for the plot; a man who read Lord Kinross' "The Ottoman Centuries" in a dingy pension near the market, the bed exhausted and he wide awake.

For the most part these volumes told a tale of people bent on light reading -- mysteries and bodice-rippers and Louis L'Amour westerns. It's easy to feel scorn for such books -- their failure to drape anything artful over the bare machinery of their plots. But they bear you along and spit you out, and then -- here's the lovely thing -- you can throw them away. Like sample shampoo bottles or slips of hotel soap, they're perfect for traveling: You won't mind leaving them behind. That was the trouble with my plan -- trying to patch up the holes in my literary education while on holiday. I ended up with books I felt obliged to cart home again.

No surprise then that I had passed up the mysteries and was considering a copy of Conrad's "Nostromo" when the owner appeared through a side door. He was a large, doleful man whose head nearly brushed the ceiling.

"Is this any good?" I held up the Conrad.

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"Excellent," he said, in deep tones.

"Anything else you might recommend?"

The bookseller didn't even glance at his stock. "No, it's all trash. Business is no good." He gave me a bare look. "Have you read E. O. Wilson?"

I hadn't, but I had known someone who revered the old ant specialist, and the bookseller took this as encouragement. He went to a table at the front of the shop, brushed the dozing cat to the floor and came back with a well-thumbed copy of the Times Literary Supplement. "This is also quite good," he said, pointing to a review of some other ecologist's tome. He dropped the paper to his side. "Do you like Tom Wolfe? Saul Bellow?"

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"Well ..." I hadn't time to answer.

"Have you read Graham Swift's 'Last Orders'? I heard he stole the plot from Faulkner."

Poor fellow. I had another month to go, at most, without a good book. But he was as hungry as the spiders that strung webs in the corners of his shop: He had to wait for what might come to him.

Grudgingly, I pulled a novel from my bag: William Maxwell's "The Folded
Leaf." "Can I trade this?" I asked.

"Of course," he said. "But do you have anything else?" He peered into my
satchel.

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"This I'm keeping," I said, closing the flap on a copy of "The Executioner's Song." My husband had just finished it, and I'd read it before, but it was a book I wanted for the bookshelf back home.

"Is that Norman Mailer?" The bookseller's eyes had lit up.

"Yes," I said. "But I don't want to part with it."

"Mailer -- he wrote the book on Oswald?"

"The very one."

"And another ..." He rifled through his mental card file, then raised a triumphant finger in the air. "'Army of the Night'?"

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He went on like this for the better part of an hour, until the late afternoon light in the doorway beckoned me out. "Look, can I have the 'Nostromo' for this?" I asked, holding up the Maxwell.

"All right," the bookseller said, and we exchanged offerings. "But tell me, is the Mailer as good as they say?"

I had nearly reached the sill. "It's terrific."

"And when are you leaving Antalya? Perhaps I could borrow it."

"Tomorrow," I said. "Early." I was glad it was the truth.

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The bookseller stood in the doorway, looking deflated, as I set off down the street. Just then I was glad to escape, but later I would feel guilty for not leaving him the novel or at least chatting longer, starved as the man was for literature and literary conversation. It was his stack of book reviews that made me reconsider: It seemed unfair that a man with such keen tastes had to subsist on essays about books he might never read -- all appetizers and never a meal. Perhaps it's a small courtesy to leave vacation reading in your wake, no matter what it costs you, to sail through a strange country, discarding books for those following or left behind, your bag getting lighter as you go.


Lisa Michaels

Lisa Michaels is a contributing editor at the Threepenny Review. Her memoir, "Split: A Counterculture Childhood," will be published by Houghton Mifflin next summer.

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