The Bookmobile: swapping stories and hitting the road

It’s appropriate that at Litquake — the recent week-long celebration of books in San Francisco — I’d find out about unconventional ways of honoring the written word.

I came across the Bookmobile, parked on busy Valencia Street with its doors open wide, inviting visitors to come inside.

‘Is it a library or a bookstore?’ I wondered, trying to categorize it so I could understand it. The thing is, it’s neither.

It’s a truck that’s empty inside, except for wooden shelves on each of the side walls, which are filled with books. The concept is simple and brilliant: step inside and get a book. In return, they don’t ask for money. They ask to videotape your response to the question “what book influenced your life?”

Creative and thought-provoking, right? Even better, the Bookmobile will soon put its wheels in motion to reach people in small towns along the Lincoln Highway. It’s set to leave San Francisco in April and arrive in New York City in mid-May.

At the helm is founder, Tom Corwin, who has had success as an author, music producer, and film producer. And if you think the driver looks familiar, you’d be right. Along the way, different authors — including Amy Tan, Tom Robbins, and Dave Eggers — will be joining the road trip and taking their turn at the wheel.

At the end of the project, Tom will combine the interviews with a history of the Bookmobile and create a documentary, appropriately named “Behind the Wheel of the Bookmobile.” He hopes to finish the film by spring 2011.

“Books influence our lives in ways too often untold,” says Tom. “Our trip is designed to tell some of those stories while our back roads route connects the project to America’s literary history.”

You can only imagine the stories waiting to be told — both by people along the Lincoln Highway and the authors themselves. They’re likely to be as varied as the books out there. Already in the archives is the story of Ralph Eubanks, the Director of Publishing at the Library of Congress, who recalls being thankful to visit a bookmobile during his childhood. As an African-American in Mississippi, he could get books there, when he couldn’t get them at the library.

The Bookmobile on this trip is authentic, alright. Until recently, the “Old Gal” made her rounds of the suburban Chicago area for 15 years (and 70,000 miles) to bring books and the love of reading to children and adults. Bookmobiles have been used as mobile libraries for towns without library buildings and for people with difficulty accessing libraries — the first U.S. bookmobile ran in Maryland in 1905.

Books have already been donated by libraries and publishers, but what the project could use now are money donations (from $35 for ‘buy a mile’ to more for ‘buy a state’).

If you’re not on the cross-country route, you can still be a part of the Bookmobile experience. Submit the story of the book that influenced your own life (in 200 words or less) to the Bookmobile website. And follow along via the website’s blog and interviews, or get updates on Twitter and Facebook.

10 travel read suggestions for the road

Ben Groundwater points out in his Sydney Morning Herald post “Travel Reads for the Road” that a good book is a wonderful companion to have while traveling. Not only can reading help fill up down time in a satisfactory way, a good book can enhance travel experiences.

In his post Groundwater lists ten perfect for travel books that range from serious to humorous and fiction to non-fiction. These are the best books he’s read this year. The neat thing about his list is that he pairs several books with locations where their settings will seem most poignant.

For example, if traveling in Africa, read Swahili for the Brokenhearted by Peter Moore and Blood River by Tim Butcher.

His pick for Thailand travel is The Beach by Alex Garland– and for Russia, particularly St. Petersburg, Groundwater suggests A City of Thieves by David Benioff.

If France strikes your interest, check out A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke and Almost French by Sarah Turnbull.

For travel in general, Groundwater recommends Holidays in Hell by P.J. O’Rourke, Rule No. 5: No Sex on the Bus by Brian Thacker, A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain and On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

The last travel related book I read was Step Back From the Baggage Claim. A review is coming your way soon. In the meantime, each of Groundwater’s suggestions are appealing. I’m particularly interested in picking up Rule No 5: No Sex on the Bus and Swahili for the Brokenhearted. The titles alone are intriguing. Thacker’s book is not new, but it sounds hilarious and Moore’s book has a similar theme to Franz Wisner’s book Honeymoon with my Brother where travel and self discovery go hand in hand.

Talking Travel with Chuck Thompson

Aaron recently introduced Chuck Thompson’s new book, Smile While You’re Lying, and today Gadling got the opportunity to have a chat with him. The interview talks about savage travel stories, “Journalistic Tiramisu,” travel-blogging, the authors complaints on the road, and the future of the travel-industry. Enjoy!

We also have 5 copies of the book to giveaway, so stick around after the interview to find out how you can score one for free!

Thank you for talking to us here at Gadling! The content of your book elaborates on savage travel truths that are usually off-limits for general travel-press, what motivated you to make this book happen? What were the challenges you faced in getting this book published?

I got fed up with coming back from intense experiences on the road – and I mean ??intense?? in both good and bad ways – and being muzzled by editors who demanded copy that sacrificed intelligence and storytelling for the sake of advertiser-friendly pap. Not just in travel, but a lot of magazine writing these days is basically glorified PR copy. The stories I told my friends over beers or wrote about in emails never seemed to make it into my bylined pieces. I’d have a story published somewhere and weeks later a friend would call and say, ??Hey, I saw your article on Panama in such-and-such magazine.?? And I’d sort of cringe and say, ??Oh, man, let me tell you what really happened in Panama.??
The challenges were pretty much the challenges faced by any unknown writer with a book proposal-it’s matter of finding the right agent and editor who really “get” your idea in the same way you do. The first agent I sent my proposal to sent back a nasty note telling me how appalled she was by the pitch and my Thailand chapter and how I’d better rethink what I was doing. She actually sent me some photocopied pages from a book on how to be a successful writer. But I remained pretty confident about finding the right people to get behind this. From the time I sent the first proposal out to the book actually getting published took about three and a half years.

What inspired the title of the book and its visual?

The title alludes to the small fibs that travel writers such as myself have to go along with in order to preserve their jobs as travel writers, the larger ones told everyday by the travel industry that perpetuate the accepted myths of the industry, and also the broader triumph of public relations that’s made our mainstream media supplicant to corporate and government spin. As for the cover, it’s meant to express what the book aims to be-fun and entertaining, but also something that shines a subversive light upon travel icons. A lot of people don’t catch it, but if you look at the cover closely, you’ll find a little subversive visual joke hidden in there.

I had to laugh as you tagged travel stories in glossy commercial magazines as “Journalistic Tiramisu,” could you explain this term?

Just the sort of lightweight, drooling, praise-heavy hack copy routinely applied to make mundane places and trips sound “magical” and “resplendent.” Travel writers can’t just walk, they have to “amble” or “meander.” They don’t simply eat, they “dine.” Any store opened within the last two years is “hip,” “hot,” or “happening.” All seas sparkle, all views are breathtaking. My favorite descriptions of this sort of travel reporting are “witless puffery” and “sun-dappled barf,” both of which I heard from other travel writers. (So please don’t present them as mine, even though I wish they were.)

You talk about the travel industry being in a state of dramatic flux and that the “golden age” of international tourism may be drawing to a close; what then, in your opinion, is the future of the travel industry?

There seem to be two divergent opinions on the matter. Boeing and Airbus and other travel and transportation companies-many based in China and around Asia-currently forecast a five-percent annual increase in air travel over the next two decades. This will cause world air traffic to triple by 2030. Imagine three times more babies and three times as many wankers in the middle seat battling you for armrest hegemony on your flight from New York to L.A.

There is a mitigating factor and that is oil. Can we get a stable supply of it out of the Middle East for the next twenty years? Even if we can, is Peak Oil for real and, if it is (which I happen to believe), how soon will it begin causing major problems with mass transportation? Look, you can build all the battery-powered cars you want and probably make ’em work, but getting a fully-loaded 757 off the ground or turning diesel-powered props of a cruise or cargo ship is quite another story. At the moment, there’s nothing even close to alternative fuel for those monsters. Those things aren’t little, plastic four-seaters that need to range 150 miles at a time. They require real power.

The “savage” type of content in your book is often found on travel blogs. How do you think the blogging industry — that warrants personal, raw and original content — will affect the travel publishing industry?

I love blogs. I like contributing to them, reading them, and being a part of them. It’s the best place right now to find authentic travel writing, even if it’s sometimes rough. I wish I had more time to spend reading them. However, I firmly believe the demise of print media has been greatly exaggerated. I don’t expect print to go away in my lifetime, I don’t expect books or magazines to lose their appeal, especially not as long as we continue to condition our kids to read on paper. You know what’s happening with the children’s book market in this country? It’s a gold rush, a boom economy. When I walk into a bookstore and see rows and rows of featured children’s books, I think, “Good for all of us in the print biz.” And just for portability and tactile pleasure and saving my eyeballs, I do prefer books, magazines, and other hard copy to reading on a monitor. I think blogs already are and will become an even larger part of the legit media mix. This is great. But they aren’t going to replace mainstream media anytime soon.

You say in your intro that one of the best things of being a traveler is complaining about the parts you don’t like, I couldn’t agree more! Care to share some of your biggest complaints on the road with Gadling readers?

I know it comes with the territory and I’m generally good-natured and smiley about it, but I absolutely hate being the zoo-animal white guy celebrity in rural Asian and African villages. There’s a smile-when-you’re-lying moment for you-me surrounded by thirty kids yanking at my arm hair with a big idiot grin of affability on my face. I’ve got a bunch of those photos and in every one I was hating life when it was taken.

Another complaint I have is with uppity “travelers” who complain about all the damn “tourists.” We’re all tourists, to a degree, none really any better than the next. If someone wants to spend his travel dollars squatting for two weeks in a bamboo hut in Cambodia, cool. If someone else wants to take her three kids to Walt Disney World in Orlando and stuf
f them with fried dough and Mega-bucket Dr. Peppers, as far as I’m concerned, that’s just as authentic an experience, whether they enjoyed it ironically or not.

What is the worst thing that has happened to you on the road?

I guess having all my money-$1,200-stolen in Thailand. I attempted to turn this into a humorous story in Smile When You’re Lying, but it was absolutely horrible when it happened and I was not thinking at the time how enriching an experience it was. In fact, I was sort of panicked. I was on an island and couldn’t even get off to make a phone call for help for lack of ferry fare. Wandering around that island starving and begging for help was lonely and miserable and embarrassing.

The biggest travel myth in your opinion?

That places are dangerous and people are scary and out to get you. I’ve been to a lot of cities and countries I was repeatedly warned not to go because it was so dangerous. Muslim-rebel territory in Mindanao in the Philippines. The Congolese jungle. Caracas. Wherever there are people, there’s normalcy. People go to work and school, they buy food at the market, they make dinner, they love their families, they’re generally kind or at least civil with strangers. I’m not talking about legitimate war zones, which are different, but for the most part, the paranoia of many people about international travel is grossly unjustified. People who don’t travel to these places think that those of us who do are adventurous and brave. But you go to these places and you see what a lie that is. And you come home and smile about it. What the hell, let ’em think you’re brave. Maybe they’ll buy one of your books.

Thanks, Chuck!

More information can be found at www.chuckthompsonbooks.com

Want to win a copy of the book? It’s easy. Here’s how:

  • To enter, simply leave a comment below telling us about the worst thing that’s happened to you while traveling. Make sure to use a valid e-mail address, or else we’ll have no way to contact you if you win!
  • The comment must be left before Friday, January 4, 2008 at 8:00 PM Eastern Time.
  • You may enter once.
  • 5 winners will be selected in a random drawing.
  • 5 winners will receive Smile When You’re Lying (valued at $15.00).
  • Click Here for complete Official Rules.

A Rittenhouse Gem: The Rosenbach Museum

While engrossed in my entertaining introduction to vampires last week, I learned about a fantastic museum in Philadelphia that I’m eager to visit. The Rosenbach Museum and Library is housed in the former residence of two brothers: Dr. A.S.W. and Philip Rosenbach. The siblings were experts in decorative arts and collected rare books and manuscripts, many of which became part of this unique museum and research center.

Eric Nuzum visited the Rosenbach to review Bram Stoker’s notes and outline for Dracula, which are part of the museum’s permanent collection, along with a celebrated first edition copy of Don Quixote, more than 600 letters written by Lewis Carroll, and over 10,000 drawings and sketches by author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. The museum hosts a variety of creative exhibits and programming throughout the year, and runs guided tours of the home. Recently, they began offering a hands-on tour: Made in Philadelphia, which focuses on decorative arts created in the city between 1750 and 1850. Visitors are invited to look closely and even handle selected pieces of furniture and silver.

A museum that hosts an annual Dracula Festival and lets you touch things?! Sounds like a place not to be missed. They’ve got a blog too.

Paulo Coelho’s Blog

ArcherThose who found chunks of wisdom in Paulo Coelho’s book, The Alchemist will be happy to know that the author of the acclaimed novel which has led many in search of their personal legends and dreams has a blog. I just stumbled upon the site via Korea.net. And there is more to the site than the blog which is translated in seven languages. See the Brazilian author’s photoblog, search for additional literature or serious fans can download desktop wallpapers of the author himself. I’ve read The Alchemist once and I’ve been longing to go back and read it over and over again to pick up on anything I may have previously missed. Perhaps I will follow the dream of reading it again sooner than later, but for now I’m thankful there is an online medium to check out. Go see it for yourself.