The Power Of Printed Books

Green ZoneIt’s easy to get caught up in the hype that ebooks are sounding the death knell of printed books, but if there’s one thing that South America has reminded me, it’s that printed books are far from dead—they’re alive and well in the hands of travellers.

Everywhere I look, backpackers and flashpackers are clutching or leafing through their well-thumbed Lonely Planet guidebooks. They’re reading novels in hammocks (or covering their face with them as an effective sun block while they’re snoozing). They’re perusing the hostel book swaps. Or they are, like me, lamenting the lack of supply of English language books, and making puppy dog eyes at anyone willing to loan or swap them one.

The reason? Ebooks are fantastic and I will happily subscribe to them, but when you’re travelling, you don’t always have access to the ebook make-or-break thing: power. That or the power you have access to isn’t always reliable*. Nothing—not a pretty iPad, not a less-pretty but equally functional Kindle—can replace the handiness, the ease, and the comfort of a printed book.

I have single-handedly blacked out my hostel in Rio three times in the last 24 hours. By turning on the light. They keep asking me if I have other things, such as power-sucking hair dryers, plugged in at the time I switch on said light, i.e. something that would short the circuit or whatever the technical language is. I would argue that it’s clear given the frizziness of my hair that there are neither hair dryers nor hair straighteners being used by me. It’s obviously—and slightly frighteningly—the hostel’s dodgy wiring. I’d have no chance of charging an iPad.

It’s also occurred to me in recent days that although travelling is exciting, printed books also offer an escape from travel. Or help you travel in another way. They help you escape from an interminably long flight. Escape from the snoring of the person slumped in the seat next to you. Escape from the jet lag-induced insomnia. But they also help you journey into a place, to better understand it as you travel through. At the very least these books remind you of a time and place where you enjoyed them.

I made a lucky find a couple of days ago, both because I found an English book I’m enjoying and because it’s one I otherwise wouldn’t have discovered given the expansive choice of books in Australia. The book is Green Zone (originally published as Imperial Life in the Emerald City). I knew of it because it was a recent film by the director of the Bourne Identity series and starring Jason Bourne himself, Matt Damon, and I have to say that although the Bourne films are good, I figured Green Zone would be a little macho and over the top for my reading tastes.

But desperation makes for desperate reading measures, and it turns out Green Zone isn’t macho or OTT at all. It’s a brilliant, insightful, and ultimately frightening account of America’s attempt to rebuild Iraq from within a heavily protected area they cordoned off in Baghdad and to which they effectively transplanted a mini America. The result is that the Americans making the biggest decisions in Iraq have little to no understanding of the Iraq beyond the ‘Green Zone’ walls.

Imperial Life in the Emerald CityGreen Zone/Imperial Life in the Emerald City is of the ilk of The Good Soldiers and Generation Kill, but focuses on the policy makers rather than the grunt men. It’s exceptionally crafted and complements the content of the other two books, albeit thoroughly cementing my horror at the Americans’ bungled efforts (and lack of common sense, strategy, and empathy) in Iraq.

My problem with Green Zone? It’s that it’s so easy to read that I’m already three quarters or the way through. I’m sweating bullets over how to beg, borrow, or steal another book to read on the five-hour flight back to Santiago, and the subsequent 15-hour flight back to Brisbane via Auckland. I read the in-flight magazines and watched the films on the way over. On the way back, without a printed book I’m doomed.

*It should also be noted that while five-in-one adaptors seem like a good idea at the time (that is, you no longer need to cart around a bag of various ones that you can no longer remember have which plugs for what), such adaptors are far too fancy and far too technical when you’re jetlagged and. just. need. to. charge. your. phone.