I made it a goal this year abroad to read as many classics or important books as I can. Majoring in English, I somehow still did not manage to get them all done in 4 years – a fact that actually surprises a lot of people. No, I have many, many more to go; the hard part is deciding where to start.
Luckily, it turns out that Amsterdam will decide for me. There is some sort of tax on books here from what I’ve heard, so the merchandise in the many English book stores is a bit out of my price range for regular purchases. They’re great stores, particularly the American Book Center, so I have to be careful not to get carried away and spend an entire week’s pay in one visit – maybe I’ll just treat myself on special occasions.
Fortunately, one Friday afternoon last month after spending a couple of wistful hours in the ABC, I stumbled upon the outdoor Boekenmarkt in the Spui, a weekly used and antique book market in one of the city’s squares that apparently only plays hooky during gale-force winds. It isn’t a huge market, but being full of books I could spend hours there even if I went every week – and most of the books aren’t even in English. There is one booth, to my delight, with a small but sufficient assortment of books that I can both read and afford to buy often.
The selection of classics is limited, which is perfect because it greatly reduces the decision-making process. It’s just an added bonus that most of them are cool old editions under 5 euros, and I get to spend the afternoon surrounded by books and people who love them.
My first choice was Cannery Row, a Steinbeck favorite that I’ve had on my list for some time. It’s a short, easy read and the setting and characters are instantly appealing. I’d suggest that anyone who struggled with The Grapes of Wrath at the age of 16 give this one a try. It draws you in immediately and won’t disappoint.
It’s one of those books that I knew I would enjoy with the first sentence: “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” Such a random assortment of things that it somehow makes clear and perfect sense. Especially as the book goes on.
What I really love and feel can be applied to life and literature in many ways is what he offers at the end of his short opening:
“How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise – the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream – be set down alive? When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book – to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.”
To see the capturing of flat worms, a small and obscure project to say the least, as this great metaphor for the way stories are told and lives are lived – this is why we should read his books. And why I’m glad the Boekenmarkt placed this one front of me.
The flat worms remind me somewhat of my time in Amsterdam thus far. It’s certainly different than my last experience abroad – a shorter length of time in which I had a built-in social network of students and I did nothing but sight-see and travel and learn about the culture the entire time. Here I am mostly alone aside from the family and scattered random social engagements, I work 35 hours a week, and I have less money to spend on travel. I struggle with the fact that I am living here, that I can’t be doing and seeing and going to museums every second because I have some serious assimilating to do.
It’s like the window in the corner of my bedroom that leaks when it rains. I can’t hear any drips, but when I wake up in the morning or come upstairs at the end of the day – having battled the rain outside or listened to it falling on the rooftop as I fell asleep – there is always a little puddle there.
I don’t realize how much I’m doing or learning or adjusting to here until I step back and really look at it. Without noticing I’ve situated myself over the last 2 months into this city and into a new life abroad. I showed up on September 5, and since then the experiences and transformations just started to ooze, crawl and leak into my life on their own.