A Moveable Feast

Outside Magazine, October 1990 

Have I ever told you about how I invented the electronic book?  A love song to the Kindle, from a time long before the Kindle.

The helicopter was costing about $600 an hour and the dollars weren’t mine and we looked to be overweight, so there came a moment outside the hangar when small, ruthless decisions had to be made.  Andy called it triage.  Andy is young and tough and deranged by love for his work, inured to going weeks at a time in wet, bloody socks on a diet of crackers and canned fish.  That is to say, he’s a tropical ecologist.

The dollars in question belonged to him and his wife, Deb, doctoral students financing a wildly ambitious program of fieldwork in the highlands of Papua New Guinea from a handful of finite grants.  The helicopter was a little four-seater Hughes.  It could handle 450 kilograms, the pilot had told us.  On a series of trips to Andy and Deb’s camp, it had moved hundred of kilos of rice, cases of beef-flavored crackers, cases of canned mackerel, cases of navy biscuit whatever that is, cases of corned meat loaf and some other suspicious canned substance labeled “lamb flaps,” cases of cooking oil, cans of lard and or margarine, boxes full of beans and noodles and tomato paste and lentils and coffee and Milo and powdered milk, as well as two cassowary chicks in woven cages.  The cassowaries, large flightless birds of a species endemic to New Guinea, were intended for strictly experimental purposes, though the local people consider them good eating.  And now on this trip the helicopter would move us.  Four hundred and fifty kilos, period, inclusive of passengers and personal baggage and the breakfast we’d eaten that morning and any mud on our shoes.  It would be lifting us through bad weather, across 60 kilometers of razorback ridges, into a zone of roadless rainforest.  We gazed again at our modest but impossible pile of gear.  Which bits, in a pinch, were dispensable?

 The alternatives to triage were that I might ante up another 600 bucks myself or, still less appealing, that we might ballast ourselves to an unscheduled landing in the treetops.  All right, I said.  All right.  We’ll leave my camera behind.  Both lenses.  The whole box.  Good, Andy said, that’s a start.

 Well, this lump, I said, is just my sleeping bag.  Oh, you won’t need that, we’ve got blankets, said Deb.  I carry a first-aid kit, I admitted guiltily.  Leave it, said Andy, there’s plenty of medicine at the camp.  Mmmf, mmfffmmm, OK, this here is a filter pump for potable water, note how small, how compact, very handy item.  Totally unnecessary, said Deb, the stream is fine.  Sigh.  Reluctantly I removed from my pack a jar of oat-bran tablets.  And a plastic canteen.  And an emergency ration of dried apricots.  And then I stopped.

Do you have any books? asked Andy.

Books?  I put on my most vacant face.  Hey, look, maybe the clouds are opening.  Gee, it’s already quarter past ten.  By the way, I’m skinnier than I look in this shirt.  What, oh, books?

Books, Andy said.  Won’t need them.  We’ve got books galore out there.

I’d heard that one before.  Dick Francis, Robert Ludlum, Tom Robbins, and Principles of Dispersal in Higher Plants.  Many of the brightest people I know are ecologists, but generally they have no better idea of what constitutes good literature than I do of what constitutes multiple linear regression.  Dear God, I thought, no.  Not my books.

Ostentatiously I lightened my pack by the weight of two paperbacks.  Discreetly I kept a third.  It was a novel, The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris, of which I had read only the first chapter.  Not a great book, not a serious book, but skillful and engrossing.  And everyone has his own final, non-negotiable limit.  There’s just so far a person is willing to go merely for the sake of avoiding a helicopter crash in the jungle.

I had reached my final, nonnegotiable limit.  One book.  I would read it slowly, read it twice.  I would surrender it when they pried off my cold, dead fingers.  Crank up the machine, I thought, and let’s flly.


Of course, it’s not a dilemma unique to helicopters or to tropical forest.  It’s inherent in travel itself.  Suitcases are too small, bookstores are scarce and mediocre, everything at the newsstand is in Portuguese or German or Malagasy, you’ve already reread all the best parts (for instance, Samuel) of the Gideon’s Bible, and on the shelves of those charming and otherwise percipient folk you happen to be visiting sit Reader’s Digest condensations, Pearl Buck, Sidney Sheldon, John D. MacDonald, The Exorcist, Agatha Christie, romances of the torn bodice school, Louis L’Amour, Carlos Castaneda, Douglas Adams, and the great starchy dumplings of James Michener.  Part of the essence of travel is relinquishing full control over the texture and path of your own life–and one aspect of that relinquishment is a chronic shortage of decent reading.

You can’t plan your way around this dilemma.  But you try.  You fatten your luggage with a half-dozen paperbacks, books you intend to read and other fallbacks you might read, the lesser works of authors whose masterpieces you know, neglected classics for which you’ve never found time.  Over the weeks of your journey, you ration these treasures carefully and finish them all.  Then suddenly there’s an unforeseen three-day delay at some Mongolian railway hotel while workers with small shovels pretend to be trying to clear an avalanche off the tracks.  Or you’re stuck on an atoll because of a bad number-three engine, with parts to be sent in from Guam.  Or the monsoon arrived early, the river fords are impassable, the forest trails are flowing mud, and you have no option but to sit on a bamboo veranda murdering hours of your life.  Or a bag gets lost, say, and your last previous stash of rainy-day volumes is lost with it.  You can’t plan for these things.  If you do supply yourself with a generous margin of books, then the delays and the rain don’t happen, and you have built up your shoulder muscles and made the trip seem longer and harder by schlepping 30 pounds of superfluous paper halfway around the world.  In which case:  Next time you pack less, and then come the rain and delays.  It’s not a problem that can be eluded by foresight.  You’re out there, and you just have to live off the land.

You scan those bookshelves at airports and in hotels and guest cottages for the orange spine of anything published by Penguin.  Many of these Penguins you don’t want to read, but still it’s a useful heuristic.  You develop a grateful devotion to the handful of writers who, despite being hugely popular and widely available, also produce consistently fine work:  John le Carré, for instance.  And you reread your favorite among the hallowed standards, and reread them again, as often as luck offers them; by this method you come to memorize certain parts of The Sun Also Rises and All the King’s Men.  Finally, in capitulation, you read things that otherwise you wouldn’t.  Which is how you acquire your informed distaste for Dick Francis and Tom Robbins and Michener.  Do you have any other forms of recourse?

Well, there does happen to be one ingenious invention designed to cope with this problem.  But unfortunately it’s not yet available in stores.

It’s also not yet available in catalogs or warehouses or the R&D lab at Sony.  Even the prototype remains unbuilt.  Remember you heard it here, because this little gizmo is a surfboard-length out in front of even the breaking crest of microelectronic news.  My wife and I only invented it three weeks ago, over the dinner table, on the evening before I left for New Guinea.  We call it The Moveable Feast Compact Electronic Library.

It’s the size and weight of one Gideon’s Bible.  It runs on a rechargeable battery.  No traveler should be without one.

The MFCEL is so simple, I’m surprised someone else didn’t think of it.  The book-like hardware contains just ten pagelike flaps, thin but sturdy, each of which is (on both sides) a backlit liquid-crystal display screen.  (Don’t ask me how that works.  Engineering details are not my province.  Fiber optics, says my wife, whose province they aren’t also.)  On the spine of this thing are two switches.  One turns it on.  The other is a two-way control:

Advance/Reverse.  Inside the back cover, where a library slip would go, is stored a packet of several dozen 64-megabit chips.  Each chip holds the entire text of a good book.  You choose a chip, fit the chip into a slot, and presto:  “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion” et cetera, displaying on those crystal pages.  You read, turn a page, read, turn a page–because the physical act of turning pages is a sacred part of the reading experience that can never be replaced by electronic scrolling.  You read to page 20 and then press Advance, which automatically gives you the next 20.  You return to the front and begin reading them.

It fits in a briefcase.  It fits in a purse, in a daypack, in the side pocket of a Banana Republic vest.  With an adapter, it can be recharged anyplace.  It’s probably bad for your eyes, but it might save your brain.  Also it glows with its own radiance, obviating the need for a headlamp when you’re confined for 12-hour nights in a tent.  Within one of these little babies you can carry the Harvard Classics.  Better still, you can carry the best of Thomas Mann, Ford Maddox Ford, Bertrand Russell, Charles Darwin, Flaubert, Arthur Koestler, and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, as well as the complete works of Flannery O’Connor and Ray Carver.  On a single lonely journey you can have with you all of Graham Greene; think of the solace.  The only serious flaw of The Moveable Feast Compact Electronic Library is that, so far, it doesn’t exist.

Now here comes a reckless admission.  The MFCEL hasn’t been patented.  Truth is, I don’t care so much about getting rich.  I just want to be able to read when I travel.  Somebody please build it.

Andy Mack and Deb Wright-Mack have created their research camp in the New Guinea forest, a nine-hour hike from the nearest grass airstrip, and stocked it by helicopter with all manner of tools and amenities that you wouldn’t expect in a biologists’ bivouac.  But then it isn’t a bivouac.  They call it Crater Mountain Biological Research Station and hope it might become something permanent.  They have built with their own hands–from raw logs and ax-hewn planks cut from them by their New Guinean assistants–a large house that can supply work space and dry shelter and hot food and running water and kerosene lighting and intermittent (depending upon the gasoline generator) electricity and peace of mind to a small handful of busy scientists.  In the process, they have caused minimal disruption to the forest around them, and the forest around them is spectacular.  They intend to stay at least a few years, maybe longer, and they welcome other biologists to consider joining them.  They have also been known to welcome a journalist.  What surprised me most about this triumph of logistics and provisioning was not the stainless steel kitchen sink, nor the plastic lawnchairs on which you can sit at dusk and watch white cockatoos cruising above distant treetops, nor the computer, nor the fluorescent-lit Formica worktable, nor the dissecting scope and soldering iron with which Deb manufactures tiny transmitters for radio-tracking, nor the cheerful sight of a bottle of Jim Beam, nor the daunting supply of wheatmeal crackers and lamb flaps, nor even the fact that I was offered a log bed on which lay an actual mattress.  What surprised me most was that Andy and Deb did have books galore, good books as well as the other kind, including quite a few in which even a persnickety snot like myself could find himself interested.

They had The Selfish Gene by Dawkins and The Growth of Biological Thought by Mayr and Ontogeny and Phylogeny by Gould and Adaptation and Natural Selection by Williams.  They had The Painted Bird by Kosinski and Our Man in Havana by Greene and The New Men by Snow and Crime and Punishment and some Greek plays and a volume containing “The Kreutzer Sonata” plus other short novels by Tolstoy.  They had, if I recall correctly, some Didion and some Bellow.  They had much more.  Under their sheet-metal roof, on their rough plank shelves, a day’s march from the nearest flush toilet, they had not just a pile of junk reading but a smallish, humidity-warped, admirably diverse library.  Now they also have a copy of The Silence of the Lambs.

When I’d finished that bizarre novel, early on during my visit, I turned to something from the shelves–a book that I felt due to reread and that would certainly keep me occupied for more than few kerosene-lit evenings.  I opened Anna Karenina to “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family” et cetera, and suddenly Papua New Guinea was Russia.

When the time finally came for me to make that nine-hour hike downriver to the grass airstrip, I had barely gotten past the chapter in which Levin and Anna’s brother go snipe-hunting.  I said grateful good-byes to Andy and Deb and Leo Tolstoy.  But you’ll need something to read, said Deb, while you wait for the plane.  That was true, yet I didn’t have the heart to ask for Anna Karenina; I knew it was much too precious right there where I’d found it.  Let me take something that’s dispensable, I said.  They sent me off with Dick Francis.

Two days later, by foot and Cessna, I had reached the town of Goroka and was holed up at a little hotel run by Lutheran missionaries, while I waited for my international flight.  Like a junkie needing a fix, I nervously prowled the local newsstands and the Goroka public library.  By now I had reclaimed the rest of my gear, including the two paperbacks that hadn’t made it aboard the helicopter.  But how far would those two have to be stretched?  What if my flight were delayed?  At the newsstands, no luck.  At the library I found Michener, Leon Uris, M*A*S*H Goes to Las Vegas, an autobiography by Groucho Marx that (unlike Harpo’s amazing autobiography) looked slapdash and unrewarding, and my favorite Raymond Chandler novel, The Long Good-bye, which I’d already read three times.  I took the Chandler as a fallback.  Then I picked carefully over the shelves at the Lutheran hotel, finding religious tracts in German, a Bible in New Guinea Pidgin, a three-year-old copy of Time magazine, and something I swear to God titled Clarence, the TV Dog.  In fairness to the Lutherans I’ll admit there were quite a few others, but none that fit my needs.  Wait, though.  What’s this?  My hand went to a thin black paperback sandwiched inconspicuously on a lower shelf.  I saw the name Hemingway, and I snatched it.

Next morning before dawn, with a cup of instant coffee scrounged from the kitchen while the Lutherans slept, I settled into this wonderful thin book.  “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”  I had only read it once or twice before.