The name ‘Bookpacking' is not especially self-explanatory or informative to the experience it offers to its participants. The word combines backpacking with books, so most people will understand that someone who is ‘bookpacking’ is traveling somewhere with books. However this is just a small glimpse into what we are actually experiencing. On our first day of seminar, our instructor Andrew said something that has been whirling around in my mind every day since. He explained that the true purpose and essence of this experience is a practice and course in empathy – first in literature, secondly in different cultures. After he said this, my perspective of what I would be doing and gaining from this trip shifted. That sentence was the moment I began to understand not only how innovative the idea of ‘bookpacking’ is but of how important it is and the power it holds. I believe that 'bookpacking' has the potential to bring people together and help society understand completely different places and people in a time where we are incredibly polarized.
When we first arrived in Louisiana, we drove immediately from the airport to Grand Isle- the setting for our first book: The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Coincidentally, I had been assigned to read this book four years ago in my AP English class in high school. It became apparent to me when I was reading on the beach within the first chapter of this book how different the experience of reading the novel feels when reading it in the setting it takes place in. While one might not think that it would create a strong distinction, I already felt closer and that I had a greater understanding of the main character Edna Pontellier. Edna is an extremely complex character that parallels a lot of characteristic of the author who created her in that they are both significantly radical for their time. Kate Chopin has always been described as a rebel, which explains why she chose to write a feminist novel on Edna’s opposition to her predisposed role as a mother and the sexual awakening she experiences. The book was released in 1899 -a time when the idea that a women could have desires beyond being a good wife and mother were already looked down upon and even more so, wanting to have sex for the sake of experiencing pleasure was straight up outrageous.
Reading Edna’s inner monologue of confusion, conflict, and finally conviction for what she wants while seeing where it all happens gives the reader a more expansive view on what life must’ve been like for her. Kate Chopin uses the intensity of the ocean and the weather to draw parallels with the highs and lows Edna feels throughout the novel. Being on the beach and swimming in the ocean like she did, I was able to feel and understand certain passages on a deeper level. One of my favorite depictions of the ocean in this novel is,
As I let my body float in the water of the Gulf of Mexico, slowly bob up and down and move gently with the calm waves, I knew exactly what she meant. The water here isn’t like the water you feel when you go for a swim in the freezing Pacific Ocean and the beach is not filled with crowded tourists, the smell of tanning lotion and the sound of seagulls gawking and children crying. No, the water is warm and wraps you tightly in its embrace and there is an utter silence where if you close your eyes all you hear are the soft sounds of the waves crashing gently on the shore. In this state I had the chance to think about my own awakenings happening on the Isle and compare my thoughts to Edna’s.
This is the first time I have left home, all my friends, and family for an extended period of time. I am from Orange County and have the privilege to see my family whenever I’d like with a short car ride. I also had a couple of my best friends from high school join me at USC, so there has never been a time in my life where I felt completely isolated and surrounded by strangers. My mom has always encouraged me to travel and explore different places but I had been scared to leave my comfort zone; I often tie myself to people at home and focus on helping them and being there for them when they need me instead of forcing myself to look inward and grow. Being apart from my friends and family has encouraged me to ask myself questions about my values, what I want in the world, what I want to contribute, and who I want to be. As I begin to realize what I want, Edna also began, “… to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her.” While part of me is scared, I am mostly exhilarated to learn more about myself and grow.
It is a universal truth that literature is one of the greatest ways to learn about our society’s beliefs, values, fears, great loves, and everything else far and in between of both the past and present. Storytelling has been essential in teaching the old ways to the new and learning from past mistakes in order to create better, brighter futures. It is impossible to not see things differently, from someone’s very specific perspective when you are physically placed in someone else’s footsteps on the same streets, on the same sand. ‘Bookpacking’, in the four days I have been exposed to it, has already made me feel infinitely more connected to the stories I am reading, to the people and places around me, and to myself.