Anyone who’s spent more than a minute on this website can’t fail to be taken with the concept. The marriage of literature and location is one of the most rewarding unions there is.
But there are downsides to Bookpacking….
For example, what happens when you’re in a city and haven’t read the key book recently? How do you cope with the struggle to remember why a street seems familiar, why that house rings a bell or who that statue is supposed to represent? It’s like an accelerated freefall into dementia…everything seems at once known but unknown, viewed through a distorting lens. It’s on the tip of your tongue but damned if you can remember what it is you’re trying to spit out.
I’ve just spent the weekend in Savannah, a town, as you will know, that was completely reinvented by what locals still call “The Book”. John Berendt’s compelling account of life in the city, MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL, was one of those once in a generation books that tourist authorities dream of. Unlike say New Orleans, Savannah is a one book town – but that book has a sense of place that packs the punch of a full library.
So, over a decade ago, my wife and I wandered the genteel squares of the historic district, book in hand, dutiful pilgrims on the path of the Mercer House dramas, having both read the book before we arrived. It was an enriched and enriching stroll through the pages of a well constructed book.
But that was then, this is now. We returned to Savannah to celebrate a family wedding twelve years since that first, book fuelled trip. The gnawing unease began on the drive from the airport. A sense of something left behind or undone. It wasn’t my passport, any of my phones. My iPad, the usual culprits. Check, check, check….
I’ve left no room for dramatic tension, you know already what the problem was. Here was a place I once knew intimately and now, while it wasn’t a stranger, I could no longer grasp its features. I’ve always been absent minded but this was forgetfulness on steroids.
Wikipedia is now the repository of all knowledge so, as soon as we got to the hotel (the Marshall House – was this another historic landmark that I should have recalled from the book?), five minutes online refreshed my memory about the key moments of the book. But the bite-sized world we live in now is no substitute for the three course meal that is a book. The richness of Berendt’s fare was replaced by the thin gruel of Jimmy Wales.
Savannah normally sits wrapped in a warm cotton wool humidity. The book and one’s own experience come together in a sweaty, sticky mess. It’s a full on sensory overload of heat that takes you right into the heart of the deep South. To walk the streets is to melt, ounce by ounce, page by page.
But we arrived in a rare cold snap. Fleeces were dug out of closets, long flounces were put away. People walked briskly with purpose (briskly, in the South?) and round each corner a chill wind blew no good. So it didn’t feel like the antebellum film set it normally does. It felt like a Southern theme park set in Canada.
At least though, it felt autumnal. One of the threads in the weave of a visit to the South is that sense of melancholic dissatisfaction that pervades the stoops and lurks under the live oaks. If Spanish moss didn’t grow naturally the Southerners would have resorted to draping their trees themselves to mark the drooping lassitude and sorrow for times past that is the hallmark of this strand of the South. The drift of leaves across the parks played to this mood but that was about it because the date made all of this irrelevant.
Saturday November 11th 2017 was Veterans Day in America and in Georgia, with military bases all around the city and every High School providing a full roster of ROTC students, that meant a big parade, marching bands and the Shiners dressed as Keystone Cops. It’s triumphant, celebratory, a little bit reflective but in no way typical of the faded gentility that Berendt wrote of or the town on the other 364 days of the year. Our attempts to recapture the mood of MIDNIGHT were blown away by the big trombone.
So it’s cold, Sousa marches fill the air and I can’t reconnect with the atmosphere of this important book. We decided to stop chasing the chimera of Berendt and visit some of the museums that we hadn’t had time for on the previous visit. And in the Jepson Center for the Arts in Telfair Square, we came to what, in my rambling fashion, I had really wanted to write about.
Remember the cover of the book? The statue of the Bird Girl that stands over the Trosdal family tomb in Bonaventure Cemetery? A key image that contributed to the book’s allure, Berendt himself said it was one of the strongest book covers he’d ever seen.
But now? The Bird Girl has come in from the gravestones and stands in the art gallery. A regretful commentary confides how the book has caused so much traffic to the cemetery that the family have moved her indoors and away from the crowds.
And there’s the dark center of our literary love-ins. Like the traveller vs tourist debate, have we made our locations too popular? Surely we aren’t the same as the hordes of cruise ship tourists who flood into sites like Venice…..are we? They’re the barbarians and we’re the scholars . Aren’t we?