KR BlogReading

Book bearer

Lo and behold, Tom Stoppard already owns a version of the thing I’ve been coveting for at least a decade: a book valise, a drop-front super-satchel, a portable bookshelf (designed by Manhattan luggage-maker T. Anthony, who stopped making them in the early ’80s). The New York Times details this wonder.

Of course one doesn’t always know what one wants to read while traveling; Stoppard’s revelation that he carries eight books for a trip that will afford time to read one or two is perfectly intelligible to me. I find that if I don’t carry a plethora, I end up buying more on the road anyway. I’ve taken a little bit of ribbing here in England for having re-populated my bookshelves while in exile from my home library, which is itself in exile from itself, scattered over three locations back in Gambier. But the only real worry to be had about books is how to carry them around (and home) without falling afoul of baggage restrictions and muscle capability.

In the old days, when I was in graduate school, every journey to Chicago to see my significant other involved at least one trip to the used and new bookstores on 57th Street (O’Gara and Wilson’s, Powell’s, 57th St. Books–and the Seminary Co-op, sort of around the corner from 57th). I was never able to go empty-handed, bookwise, because I was usually schlepping myself across the country via Amtrak, meaning that I always had hours of good reading while we waited for windows of track time in the flats of northern Ohio and Indiana. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and Charles Dickens’s Bleak House–these are the kinds of (not-small) books that get a sixteen-hour train trip done in style. And since in those days I was still building my library in an intensive way, I regularly came home with stacks of eight or ten new (or new-old) books, many of which turned out to direct my research career.

For some trips, I was able to wrap everything carefully in plastic bags, filling the core of my suitcase and doing my best to ensure that no cover’s corners would get damaged. Given that I had no wheeled bag during my first two years of grad school, I can only grin nostalgically at my hardy young self. Sometimes, even after I had a wheeled bag, there were simply too many to fit, and that’s when–especially on plane trips–I ended up with the box.

I don’t know whether it would still be possible to travel on an airplane with a cardboard box full of books; obviously it would still be fine on Amtrak, which never seemed to care what any of us carried. Certainly it doesn’t look particularly stylish to turn up at a boarding gate with a laptop bag and a big brown box. And so it was on the occasions when I boxed my books for trips home that I really felt the absence of something sturdier and more chic within which to bear my best cargo. “You’d think that someone would design a suitcase for academics,” I said to someone at some point. I imagined a small version of my smallest bookcase, made of a material both light and indestructible, shelved (adjustably) and padded and reinforced inside, wheeled outside. The more self-restrained among us might even be able to fit some part of their wardrobes onto some of those shelves.

But Stoppard’s leather book satchel–with its drop-down front that could double as a writing desk, no less–is, despite its absence of wheels (and thus potential to stress one’s already typing-strained elbows and forearms), hands down the best-looking solution I’ve seen to the book-carrying dilemma.

Now: if I could get my hands on, say, seven of them before August, I’d be in business for getting this overseas collection back to Ohio.