One of the greatest pleasures of traveling is “swap shelves.” These are hodgepodge collections of warped, dog-eared books found in guesthouses, hostels, motels, hotels, and cafés around the world. I love them because I have such little control over what I’m going to read next—I’m at the mercy of a limited selection. It means I end up reading things I never would have read otherwise. Depending on where you are, too, English-language books are a precious commodity. When I was in Ethiopia to research The Girl in the Road, I used to sneak away to a fancy hotel down the street for ferenjis who had way more money than I did. Their swap shelf was pure gold. Like a collection of all Booker Prize nominees ever.

I also started a habit of writing my name in every book before I swapped it. I even put my email address in it. I kept hoping I’d hear from someone on the road, but I still never have. Maybe someday!* Meanwhile, I’m carrying on the tradition in Belize. I just finished Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation—it was fucking amazing, and lots of people agree—and gave it to a fellow traveler who was also having breakfast at Flayva‘s this morning. I hope she likes it too.


*Here’s a list of all the books I read on that trip and wrote my name in, and where I left them:

The Mask of Apollo by Mary Renault (Lalibela, Ethiopia)
Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama (Gonder, Ethiopia)
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson (Bahir Dar, Ethiopia)
Mad Ducks and Bears by George Plimpton (Bahir Dar, Ethiopia)
The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)
The Famished Road by Ben Okri (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Ft. Cochin, Kerala, India)
The Autobiography of Gandhi, or, My Experiments With Truth by M. K. Gandhi (Aranmula, Kerala, India)
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx (Aranmula, Kerala, India)
White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (Aranmula, Kerala, India)
Eternity by Greg Bear (Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India)
Possession by A. S. Byatt (Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, India)
Down Under by Bill Bryson (Hampi, Karnathaka, India)
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (Mumbai, India)
Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg (Wayasewa Island, Fiji)
The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J. K. Rowling (Wayasewa Island, Fiji)
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (Waya Island, Fiji)
The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton (Waya Island, Fiji)
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (Lalomanu Beach, Samoa)
Queen of Babble by Meg Cabot (Lalomanu Beach, Samoa)
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (Manono Island, Samoa)
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (Manono Island, Samoa)
The Bone People by Keri Hulme (Rarotonga, The Cook Islands)
A Month of Sundays by John Updike (Aitutaki, The Cook Islands)
Cocktail Time by P. G. Wodehouse (Aitutaki, The Cook Islands)
A Room With a View by E. M. Forster (Aitutaki, The Cook Islands)
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (Rarotonga, The Cook Islands)

2 Comments on “Swaplandia.”

  1. no doubt I will pickup a book and see you name

  2. sopleased says:

    I like what you write! And this post reminds me so much of my own experience, together with the beautiful feeling of an adventure among books which probably, back home, I wouldn’t have read! 🙂

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