The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

Losing a Book

Reading books is a recurrent source of frustration for a nomad. Especially if the only language the nomad managed to master is English. Acquiring a book in English is difficult. Acquiring a book that I actually want to read is even harder. Then, it has to be within certain weight restrictions; hard-covers are out. If I do find an English book store, I pile up several books, which makes my bag heavier and me more bitter.

I am reluctant to purchase an e-reader. I prefer to be inconspicuous, and such a device would attract too much attention in a developing country. Moreover, I already carry more than enough items that circulate electrons in an organized fashion. So physical books are the only way to go, and, apart from the trouble of acquiring and carrying them, there is the additional problem of losing them after reading. Losing a book is not quite as easy as it sounds.

A street in Hong Kong

Finding a book in English can be hard, but the difficulty of losing it should not be underestimated either.

A seemingly obvious choice would be to pass the book to an acquaintance. Extremely infrequently I can make an exchange with a local friend, for instance, once I swapped Gödel’s Proof for a treatise on the life of Mohammed in Burkina Faso. Most of my friends, however, are persistently at a place where I am not. I got this idea of mailing the book to a fairly randomly chosen person of my kith and kin. I think I unwittingly shocked a couple friends with a book showing up on their doorstep that they never requested, they were never really interested in, and that arrived from a weird location with the sender unspecified. I realized I could not invade other people’s life with obtrusive objects, I had to stop shipping unsolicited second-hand books. I also stopped taking down people’s addresses, so I would not even be tempted.

A twist on the above method is if I make the candidate recipient desire the book I wish to mail. I had this lucid hard-cover book, Ubiquitous Quantum Structure, signed by the author at a conference. I loved it, but it was as heavy as my laptop. I needed an electronic version and a safe place to keep the original. I goaded the interest of my boss citing passages and explaining how great this book was with regards to our research endeavours. Then I told him I would mail it to him if he volunteered to scan the whole thing. The deal was done, it was a win-win situation. A Kazakh post office made a bomb-proof packaging for the book, and it safely arrived at the desk of my boss in Sweden. The problem with this approach is the effort involved. It is not easy to make someone want to read the same book I did.

So, more often than not, I have to lose a book to anonymous strangers. The best alternative is when I can swap the book at the book exchange shelf of a guest house or a hostel. The selection of books is always haphazard and lacklustre, and many of them are in incomprehensible languages such as French or Dutch. Travellers should be more considerate to other travellers, and carry only English books. Even if I cannot find anything, I can quietly slip my book among the rest, and that solves the problem of getting rid of it. Such shelves become a rarity once you are off the international banana pancake trail.

I am delusional with respect to the power of books: I imagine that the book I am about to lose will change the life of the subsequent reader, extracting all the wisdom I failed to extract from the book, elevating the reader to intellectual and financial heights never experienced before. That is a huge responsibility, I should not let the book fall into the wrong hands. Being a self-appointed fighter of men’s rights, struggling against the grip of wicked women, I have to make reasonable efforts to make the lost book available only to fellow gendermates and to members of the third gender. I am not a misogynist, I have no problems with not evil women, in fact, I am very fond of them, but there are just dangerously many evil ones. My favourite scheme is to leave books in public toilets.

A public toilet in Thailand

Is this the perfect place to lose a book?

The scheme has an assumption: public toilets exist where I happen to be. This may or may not be true, usually it is not. Europe fares best in this regard, I successfully lost dozens of books this way. The toilet must have cabins, obviously, and some dry, flat surface to leave the book on. This is usually the top of the case of the toilet paper. In many cases it is too rounded, and no matter how carefully I position the centre of gravity of the book, the book will plummet down to putridity upon the smallest disturbance. If the water tank for the flush is exposed, it is also a good candidate. On one occasion it was an overhead tank, which made it very difficult for the casual toilet visitor to discover the gem I had hidden there. I think it was somewhere in Phnom Phnem, but I forgot which book. I can imagine it is still there.

I spent some time in Yerevan and I went to catch a ballet in the Opera House. They were playing Don Quixote. The performance was exceptionally bad with some truly spectacular falls. I finished reading Dostoevsky’s Devils during the intermission, so I went downstairs to the toilet to lose the book. A seventy-plus chubby fellow was changing there, he was at the butt naked phase as I entered. I had no idea why he was not using one of the empty stalls. The apparition displaying several saggy things, I concluded I never wanted to be a seventy-plus chubby fellow. I also concluded that one may see unholy things while losing a book.

If public toilets are not an option, I am left with no choices and I have to lose the book at a place where it is accessible even to evil women. The pocket of airplane seats appears like a good target for losing a book, I even found a book this way a few years ago. It was in Dutch, so I had to leave it there. I lost a couple of books with this method. Then I realized that most airlines actually clean the pockets between flights, treating everything found there as garbage, which made me rather sour. I leave no more books in seat pockets.

Some countries still have vestiges of phone booths. The phone might be absent, but there is usually a horizontal surface to leave the book on. I lost two or three books this way, I think all of them were in Brazil.

If there are no public toilets, no seat pockets, and no phone booths, I have a real problem. Desperate times call for desperate measures, in such cases any flat, dry surface will do. Sometimes there is a sufficiently abandoned bench; people must not be around, otherwise somebody would notice that I left something there. In other cases, even benches are absent. I left On the Origin of Species on a large boulder near Chamonix. Joggers kept zipping around, I had only a few-second window to lose the book and flee.

War and Piece, low-weight edition

A mountaineer-friendly edition.

My hobby is mountaineering and I developed a completely different method of losing a book while climbing. Preparing for a three-week expedition to the summit of Aconcagua, I was looking for a very long but still portable novel. I found three copies of War and Peace and I scientifically compared their weight. I made the counter-intuitive observation that the smallest volume does not have the lowest weight. I went for the lightest one, sacrificing precious cubic centimetres in my bag. While the expedition was long, we spent most of it in the base camp. We were acclimatizing, and this was the last point where mules could carry our stuff, so we had to make several rounds to carry gear up to the high camps above 5000m. Garbage was also taken out in an organized manner from the base camp. So I kept removing the read pages of my book, making it more and more mountaineer-friendly. By the time we moved to the first high-camp, I barely had one-third of the book left, and in this form it was hardly noticeable. Losing the rest was a stressless affair, I doubted that anybody would want to read the last one-third of War of Peace, so I disposed of it in a rather ordinary way by means of a trash can.

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