To peruse my bookshelf is to peruse my soul.
There is no balance here, no sense of purpose or harmony amongst the chaos. I am utterly unable to throw out or give away books and so here they rest, their spines a montage of my fleeting or prolonged passions and flights of fancy. Some of these books have travelled through countries with me, their spines cracked and their pages torn, a physical embodiment of my journeys. Others have spent years in storage, their pages gathering dust, lonely and unread until the day I pulled them out and breathed life back into them. I love all my books as friends; they have each had an effect on me through knowing them. The ideas they contain become a memory, staying with me for moments, months or a lifetime. There is one book on my shelf, however, that single-handedly changed the course of my life forever.
Koh Chang, Thailand.
As Thomas Carlyle said: The best effect of any book is that it excites the reader to self-activity. Alex Garland’s The Beach prompted me to a ‘self-activity’ that irrevocably changed my life.
As I stand in front of my bookcase my hands drifts to the top shelf; I reach over to where my old friend sits comfortably, a veteran secure in his place. I pull him out and rub my hand over the cover, a simple orange and white affair with a curious looking penguin at the bottom. The white segment where author and title are displayed is brown with dirt, as I turn him over I see his back is too. What makes him special is that this is not Australian dirt and stains, no; these are his battle wounds from our adventures through Asia. I open his cover and read with a wry smile the inscription, penned by an ex-boyfriend in a moment of forgotten love. I recall reading this book years ago and making the heart wrenching decision to follow Garland’s words: If I’d learnt one thing from travelling, it was that the way to get things done was to go ahead and do them. Don’t talk about going to [Thailand]. Book a ticket, get a visa, pack a bag, and it just happens.
It was Alex Garland’s fault that I abandoned my failing life in Perth and booked a one way solo ticket to Asia. The Beach validated my escape; it allowed me to run away from a demeaning job, a non-existent social life, an even smaller self-esteem, and a cheating boyfriend. I left behind a mass of debt, some bad relationships, some very pissed off employers and an unfinished university degree. And in doing all this I delayed the crushing inevitable…sorting out my life. As Garland explained it: Escape through travel works. Almost from the moment I boarded my flight, life in [Australia] became meaningless. Seat-belt signs lit up, problems switched off. Broken armrests took precedence over broken hearts. By the time the plane was airborne I’d forgotten [Australia] even existed.
Wat Bayon, Siem Riep, Cambodia.
I would be lying if I said that travelling alone through Asia was easy. As Victor Hugo once said: It is from books that wise people derive consolation in the troubles of life. I often used books during my travels as a means of escaping my situation and myself. There were days where I didn’t leave hostel rooms, holed up with five or six books that I picked up for a few baht in a travellers book store, chain smoking my way through cheap Thai cigarettes. I re-read The Beach over and over, on long dusty bus trips, endless waits in immigration queues, late at night on dusty hostel mattresses and whilst lying on beaches smoking cheap Thai weed and drinking $1.00 beers. The Beach often gave me the strength to keep going, to pick up my backpack, leave the anonymous room and venture on.
When I set out for South East Asia I was almost penniless, homeless, mind numbingly depressed and a little bit heartbroken. I was nearly as lost as you could ever expect a human being to become; I was caught up so completely in my own life and my own troubles that I couldn’t see anything or anyone around me. I was living in a black cloud of my own making, desperate to escape from within it but needing it to hide me all the same. Despite all this, Asia embraced me in her balmy arms, sat me down, and stroked my hair. She showed me things I could never have believed existed, demonstrated the amazing ingenuity that is humanity, and in doing so gently scraped that cloud away from around me. Slowly, whilst resting tiredly in the comfort of her quiet arms, I began to come alive again. I began to care about things other than myself and that directly affecting me, and I lived for once in my life entirely dependent on myself for my own comfort and happiness. I’m certain I could never have achieved this so quickly and immeasurably had I remained at home; it took the beauty and peace of the south of Asia to allow me to accomplish it.
Would I have gone travelling through Asia having not read The Beach? Possibly. Maybe even probably. But I would never have gone solo. I would never have taken the risks and achieved the experiences I had if not for Garland’s novel. I learnt more about myself in those five short months than I had learnt in the previous eighteen years. Garland showed me the way, gave me the courage to take on more than I ever thought myself capable of. Now I carry that with me, every day of my life.
I carry a lot of scars. I like the way that sounds. I carry a LOT of scars.