Filed under: Favorite Longreads | Tags: longreads, paul theroux, peace corps, reading, travel
Check back every Wednesday for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!
Paul Theroux’s “The Lesson of My Life” is a wide-ranging piece about his experience in the Peace Corps, an encounter with Obama and his hopes for the presidency, the differences between travel and sightseeing, and the ways technology has changed the Peace Corps experience. Theroux’s article isn’t worth reading just by the people considering joining Peace Corps, which is how I think a lot of Peace Corps-centered pieces are viewed, but for anyone attempting to better define why it is important, why it is necessary, to do this sort of work in the first place.
Theroux hits on a couple things that have troubled me during my service. First, internet is so pervasive now that the opportunity to truly “escape” has vanished. Nearly everyone in Macedonia, not just American volunteers, has the internet in their homes, and Peace Corps has changed to such a degree that it’s nearly impossible to function without the internet. During the five or six months I didn’t have internet (either because I was training, or waiting for my internet to be installed at my house, or because I left the router plugged in during a thunderstorm) I missed countless emails from Peace Corps staffers and co-workers in my school, the sort of emails that I needed to see to do my job. But this sort of technology, as Theroux points out, fundamentally changes the Peace Corps by making it possible for volunteers to retreat to the comfort of phone calls with family on a bad day. Over the past few months, which have at times felt crushing (failed projects at school, strained relations with my school’s administration due to the failed project, a need to reclaim my privacy), I’ve been guilty of this.
Theroux also writes of one of the differences between travel with an organization like the Peace Corps and the sort of sightseeing that ends in description of what people do not have: “Out of a guilty, grotesque, almost boasting self-consciousness, these wealthy visitors enumerate the insufficiencies. That’s because they don’t stay very long.” This is something I saw when I was at home, and it was something I kowtowed to when I did presentations on my Peace Corps service, because it’s not just what the visitors see but what the non-visitors want to hear that influences how we describe our travel. People do not want to hear that I’m still awed by how close families here are, how generous the people are, and how much more secure in people’s honesty I often feel here than I do in America (leave your phone in a cab in Macedonia and the driver will call you and tell you which gas station attendant he is leaving the phone with; leave your phone in a cab in America and you’re buying a new one the next day); they want to hear about girls being married when they are sixteen years old and children being taken out of school after the eighth grade, and women doing everything for the men of the family, down to getting them glasses of water when they call for them. These things are true, but as Theroux writes, they do not describe the whole of the experience.
With what sometimes feels like endless criticism of Peace Corps and the work volunteers do (see: in a bar recently, an American traveling through the Balkans describing the Foreign Service: “Look at me, look at me, I’m an American and I’m here to show you I’m a nice person” [exactly what we do in the Peace Corps], so many articles and tv shows over the last year about rape in the Peace Corps, poor agency response to volunteer problems, and reasons why Peace Corps is a poor “aid organization”), Theroux’s essay, which is in part a summation of his time in Africa and in part a defense of the necessary work behind this sort of travel, is a fine response to those who tear apart the Peace Corps without an understanding of the organization or the value of its volunteers’ efforts.
Travel—not sightseeing, but real encounters with real people—has never mattered more in helping us to see how we’re crowding a blighted planet, how interdependent we are.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: culture shock, literature, peace corps, reading
I’ve been in America over a week now, I’ve been in one library and three bookstores, so it seems time to make the promised “what it’s like going into a bookstore for the first time in two years” post.
It’s really confusing.
Actually, as far as culture shock goes, the grocery store is a better indicator than the bookstore. In the months leading up to my flight home I had countless dreams about visiting an American grocery store, about half ending with me weeping in an aisle while waiting for my mother to find me. My first trip to a store, made the same night I landed, ended with my mother pulling me around while I pointed down aisle after aisle, shouting variations on, “An aisle of SOUP! Who needs a whole AISLE of soup?! Half an aisle of TISSUES?!” and laughing so hard I started to cry. The second trip, to a WholeFoods, saw me picking up item after item, saying its name, saying its price, and replacing it on the shelf. The third visit, my mother told me to pick out a salad dressing and I started to cry because there were too many and I didn’t know which type would be best.
Now that I’ve been here a week, though, I’ve recovered enough that I can walk down the aisles exclaiming over all the new types of M&Ms and Keebler cookies without giving in to tears. I’m trying to get you ready for the experience of going into a bookstore, though, which isn’t shocking in the same way a visit to a grocery store is – somehow, I don’t get weepy when I see how many books there are – but is in terms of pricing, for someone who gets a $200 living allowance a month. I went to The Strand in Manhattan, a bookstore that I didn’t like before (too big, poorly organized, shelves are so high you can’t see the top two or three rows of books, little quality control [my favorite bookstores only sell "good" books, which may be why they aren't around for long]) and don’t like now, then on to St. Mark’s bookstore, which I liked and still like. At St. Mark’s, though, I kept building and diminishing my pile, because I couldn’t imagine spending money on so many books. So, pick up McSweeney’s and The Believer, add Matterhorn, return McSweeney’s and The Believer, pick up Electric Literature, pick up Joe Sacco’s Notes from Gaza, return Matterhorn, pick up Bitch Magazine, stare at pile of books and magazines until friend reminds me that I can purchase the books instead of just looking at them. Or a few nights ago, when I got Goon Squad, Game of Thrones and The Blind Assassin, and got all weepy looking at the prices, even when my dad said he would pay for them. (And he, by the way, got Matterhorn. A copy for me to steal!…in a year.)
I never thought I would say this, but America has too many books, and every time I’ve been in a bookstore or a library so far, I’ve gone in with a clear idea of what I want. Goon Squad was the first book I thought of buying after booking my flight home, and because these books are “extra precious” to me in that they’ll be the only ones I buy for a year, and the ones that come back to Macedonia/Albania with me, I can’t even begin to entertain the thought of buying a book that is “unknown” to me. My hesitance to try a book by an author I don’t know much about is heightened by the cost of doing so; I can’t help but convert prices into Macedonian denars, and figuring that a paperback costs 750 denars (that’s probably more than I spend on my groceries in a week) is pretty good incentive to NOT buy.
Other books coming back to Macedonia with me, if you were wondering: DFW’s Pale King, John M. Thompson’s The Reservoir, The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, a new Albanian-English dictionary.
It may not sound like I am enjoying the wealth of books here, but I am. I’m also enjoying buying The New York Times every day.
Filed under: Ways of Reading | Tags: books, comforting books, frodo baggins, literary theory, lord of the rings, peace corps, reading, samwise gamgee, spelling bees
Last night I had a dream in which Samwise Gamgee explained to Frodo Baggins his thoughts on literary theory.
“Literary theory is something that, if it is four pages long, you will fall asleep six times while you’re reading it. Then you will write a paper, but will only be able to quote the one sentence you understand from those four pages.”
This dream could mean one of a number of things.
- I need to get more sleep.
- It is about time for me to wrap up these regional spelling bees I’m doing. (Eleven days of semi-finals, one day of finals. Just ten more days and I’m free.)
- I am still working through some mixed feelings on literary theory. (See: I don’t like things that make me feel irredeemably stupid. See also: I dragged my Norton Anthology of Literary Theory all the way to Macedonia, but have only opened it one time in the past fifteen months.
- I am still working through some mixed feelings on my decision to apply for graduate school after I finish with the Peace Corps.
- My decision to reread The Lord of the Rings was a good one.
I’ve wanted to reread The Lord of the Rings for a long time, nearly a year now, but the urge only became undeniable about a week ago, when we kicked these spelling bees into high gear. It’s a comforting book to me, and really interesting now how the characters from the films play through my mind while I’m reading. This is not least because Peter Jackson did such a fantastic job with the film and with pulling so many lines straight from the books. But funny how it’s only when work becomes stressful that I find I can’t stay away from these books. I love rereading, but it turns out that maybe there are some times in life when I don’t just want to reread, but need to.
This is by way of saying, too, that my reading time has been cut drastically by these spelling bees. I’m excited to finish and get back to my rigorous schedule of four classes a day, coffee visits, and hours in front of the coil heater with my most recent find from the Peace Corps library. Over and out!