OF BOOKS AND PEOPLE a report by a Walking Librarian
During the Sideways Festival I walked as a Walking Librarian through Belgium with a group of international artists. Four Librarians carried a small library from Menen to Zutendaal, reading to people on the road, inviting them to read and write, to think and talk about books. During the process, new stories came into existence. Here are some of them.
Trees of Britain and Europe – Boris (about endurance)
I chose one book to carry on the day to come. Trees of Britain and Europe. I took it with me to the hostel and read it while my neighbor, whom I didn’t know yet, was snoring in his bed. I read about the Swamp-cypress. The common Silver-fir. The Norway Spruce. The European larch. The Western Hemlock-spruce. The Black Walnut. Beech. Tulip Tree. All commonly planted for timber.
The next morning I carried the book in my pocket. My neighbor walked in front of me. He carried a wooden table on his back.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North – a visitor (about balance)
Together let us eat
Ears of wheat
Sharing at night
A grass pillow
I started carrying Basho on my third walking day. I had had a difficult evening and I needed something to get into a different state of mind. In case you don’t know: Matsuo Basho was the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan. He is known as the master of haiku. He made a living as a teacher, but renounced the social, urban life of the literary circles and was inclined to wander throughout the country, heading west, east, and far into the northern wilderness to gain inspiration for his writing. His poems were influenced by his firsthand experience of the world around him, often encapsulating the feeling of a scene in a few simple elements.
Basho was popular on our Sideways walks. Many wayfarers carried him, letting his poems guide their minds along unexplored paths while their feet walked along the designated route.
In Turnhout our feet rested for three days. During the festival the Walking Librarians distributed 10 books around the festival terrain of the Klein Engelandhoeve. Every book had a connection with the location it was placed in. “After the car” was located next to the busy road. Nan Sheppard’s “Living Mountain” on top of a huge pile of branches. “Travels with a donkey” in the field with our animal walking companion Biegel, etc. We took people along the route and read from the different books. I had put Basho on some stones next to a green pond.
When by the end of the day I checked if all the books were still there, Basho was missing. I looked around to see if somebody had taken the book to read it but couldn’t find it. Then something caught my eye. There it was. On the ground. Placed under the leg of a table to level it. I was upset for five seconds. Then I heard Basho laugh. And I laughed with him.
Of walking in Ice – Lucy (about creativity)
The book by Werner Herzog was the second most valuable book in the library. It was also one of the most terrible books, about hardship, endurance, suffering. And one of the most beautiful books. I read it many times in the past. One day one of my colleague Walking Librarians came up to me and said there was something she wanted to discuss with me. She was reading and carrying “Of Walking in Ice” but had forgotten to put it inside her tent overnight and it got completely soaked in the rain. She had tried to dry it but it looked terrible, and since it was quite valuable she felt very bad about it. I smiled at her, immediately realizing that now the content and the shape of the book matched perfectly. It was the best thing that could have happened to it. And in a way the book now carried the traces of our mild sufferings as well
Don Quixote de la Mancha – Peter (about perception)
“Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves. This is nobel, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth.”
“What giants?” Asked Sancho Panza.
“The ones you can see over there,” answered his master, “with the huge arms, some of which are very
nearly two leagues long.”
“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what
seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”
“Obviously,” replied Don Quijote, “you don’t know much about adventures.”
Before I had left home Cervantes had fought with Calvino and Calvino won. I brought Invisible Cities and not Don Quixote. But there it was, on my first walking day. A windmill. A big one. I didn’t know what to think, I didn’t think until on my second walking day there was another windmill, ridiculously small, as if it wasn’t real. The third day I was waiting for it and it wasn’t until at the end of the walk that this majestic specimen suddenly rose out of the earth. There was a circus tent behind it. I could only stare at it in awe. The fourth day I searched the landscape for a windmill but there were only trees and houses. There were clouds and birds and people and wind but not a single windmill. At the end of the fourth day I sewed a windmill on the inside of my waistcoat. As I did on the fifth day and the sixth and the seventh, every day until the last day.
On this last day I gave my sunglasses away. They had accompanied me since the day I saw my last windmill (I originally wore a different pair but they fell in the Albert Canal). I gave them to Peter who had travelled all the way across Belgium with a donkey. He took them to Barcelona so they could see the sea, just like Don Quixote had set eyes on the sea for the first time at the same location.
Travels with a donkey in the Cévennes – Simon (about syncronicity)
I was walking with books in my pocket and Simon came up to me to ask for a book to read while walking. A book, any book. I took a random book out of my pocket, “Travels with a donkey in the Cévennes” by Robert Louis Stevenson. Simon opened the book somewhere in the middle and started reading out loud. He read how Stevenson woke up one morning early, opened his tent and was overwhelmed by the nature surrounding him. He looked around him and saw the donkey. During the early morning hours he had walked a seemingly perfect circle in the grass. Simon looked up from his the book with amazement and said that the exact same thing had happened to him just that morning.
A few days later, during a reading in the Walking Library at Zutendaal, I told the audience Simon´s story. I tried to find the quote in Stevenson´s book, but I could´t find it. I tried again later, going through the book for over an hour without a result.
Maybe it never happened.
Invisible Cities – everybody (about traces)
Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone. “But which is the stone that supports the bridge?”
Kublai Kan asks.
“The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that
they form.” Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: “Why do you speak of stones? It is
only the arch that matters to me.”
Polo answers:”Without stones there is no arch.”
I only took one book home from the Walking Library. I will return it in due time when I will fulfill my last duties as a Walking Librarian. It is Calvino´s “Le Città Invisibili”, Invisible Cities, the book I suggested when Dee, one of the two head librarians, asked me what book I would take on a trip if I would be allowed to bring just one book. It got stained and torn during Sideways. A lot of people have read it. It is dog eared, which in Belgium and Holland is called “donkey eared”. I reread the pages with the stains and folded corners. I didn’t read the words though.
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