If you were doing the Peace Corps, what reading material would you bring with you?
July 5, 2007 10:46 PM   Subscribe

Hypothetical Question: You're going to Africa for the Peace Corps, and your luggage space is extremely limited. What reading material would you bring with you to last you, oh, let's say a year?

And remember that the Peace Corps is a very disorienting process and can probably get depressing and lonely, so your book or two would probably have to be comforting. Your reading material will probably have to be something that you could read over and over again, too, and not get tired with it.

So what reading material would you bring with you?
posted by jordanian2 to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (48 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

Madeleine L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time foursome.
posted by rhoticity at 10:54 PM on July 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you knew you'd be somewhere secure and you had a lot of scratch, you could pick up an ebook reader. They'll hold alot of books, obviously, and only draw power on page turns so the battery life is great (it says 7500 page turns).

If that wasn't an option I'd probably grab something like the Bible that people like to study a lot (not my choice at all) or something I've always want to read but was always intimidated by such as Moby Dick or War and Peace. I would consider a collected work of Shakespeare. Basically, any text worth studying deeply would be my choice.
posted by chairface at 10:56 PM on July 5, 2007

I have a friend who recently got back from peace corp in Togo, Africa and she said one of the best care packages she got was, believe it or not, regular shipments of gossip rags like Star. She is the kind of person who would never ever EVER read those kind of things while in the States, but she found them very comforting when she was there. Also all the other volunteers loved them as well, which is always nice.
posted by aspo at 10:58 PM on July 5, 2007

How about the canterbury tales? If you pick up a copy of the Riverside Chaucer, you will have well over a thousand pages of Canterbury Tales, and hundreds of pages of corollary notes to go with it. If the fact that the Riverside Chaucer is in the original Middle English is a problem for you, there're translations into modern English, though I can't think of any in particular to recommend to you. Still, you want a year to kill? Learn Middle English. Honestly, it's not that hard and most of the more confusing stuff is footnoted for you.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 11:01 PM on July 5, 2007

Infinite Jest.. purely for the fact that you'll probably leave it in Africa, unread.
posted by hobbes at 11:20 PM on July 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Boswell's Life of Johnson in paperback too.
posted by watsondog at 11:22 PM on July 5, 2007

posted by robcorr at 11:26 PM on July 5, 2007

Don't read. Write.
posted by wubbie at 11:27 PM on July 5, 2007

Read AND write.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 11:39 PM on July 5, 2007

Maybe try one of the Norton Anthologies? There are a bunch of them and they'll give you a good overall view of one genre of literature at a time.
posted by banannafish at 11:39 PM on July 5, 2007

I like wubbie's idea, but the problem with writing is that it tends to be a very lonely activity.

Classics be damned, I would take books that I've read so many times I can recite whole passages by heart, just for the comfort of something familiar. In my case, that would be the Ender's Game series (Orson Scott Card), the Beekeeper's Apprentice series (Laurie R. King), the Harry Potter series (um, duh.) and the Artemis Fowl series (Eoin Colfer). While I doubt these particular titles will be to your taste, you get the idea.

Beyond the comforting presence of familiar prose, to kill time, I'd probably try to teach myself another language. Pick up a few Pimsleur's books-with-tape; they're surprisingly effective. Learn the native language, or learn something completely unrelated that you've been meaning to look at for a while. Very time consuming, but very rewarding. Also bring along a simple book or two in said language, to gauge progress and practice reading/vocab.
posted by Phire at 11:44 PM on July 5, 2007

If it's possible, download a bunch of audiobooks on your iPod. You can get free ones from the library.
posted by HotPatatta at 12:22 AM on July 6, 2007

Intellectually, I'd say the Bible, or the vedas, or poetry or something that would reward intensive study -- maybe this book On the Shoulders of Giants a former boss gave everyone in the lab for Christmas that will probably wait until each of us joins the Peace Corps to be read. But honestly? I'd probably bring a collected Jane Austen. I know every word on every page of her measly six books + detritus but I still find myself reading one or another of them every few months when real life gets me down. If you have a literary binkie like that, that's what you will want to have.
posted by Methylviolet at 12:25 AM on July 6, 2007

The Diary of Samuel Pepys, and a blank diary of my own, just in case I got ambitious, or inspired. His description of having a kidney stone removed may steel you for illness in a far place, if that be your unlucky fate, and his energy and effort in the face of bureaucratic reversals will ring true to you, no doubt.
posted by paulsc at 12:42 AM on July 6, 2007

Do you know what country you're going to yet? If it's Anglophone, you might find books on sale at markets and the like, even in more rural areas; local schools might also have resources on ordering and obtaining books.
posted by mdonley at 12:44 AM on July 6, 2007

The Man Without Qualities, by Robert Musil (assuming you won't have hours a day to read, anyway).
posted by hototogisu at 12:53 AM on July 6, 2007

I second the Norton suggestion. You can find them packaged in sets of three smaller volumes now, so you don't have to carry around a giant brick. (Or you could do what I did and cut the larger book into thirds and wrap the spine in electrical tape for the Mad Max look.)
posted by Ian A.T. at 1:02 AM on July 6, 2007

I spent a year in Guyana. The Bible, Complete Works of Shakespeare and a few of the classics did me just fine (they were in the library of the school I was working at).

If I were going now, I'd take the Shakespeare again and a few science books so I could remind myself of all the quantum physics and relativity stuff I never got the hang of at university.

If I could have only one? Shakespeare. You'll always find more to enjoy no matter how many times you read it, and he deals with all the big issues in life.

Enjoy your time out there.
posted by dowcrag at 1:31 AM on July 6, 2007

Having departed less than two months ago for Peace Corps service in Romania (granted, not as isolated as most parts of Africa, but still ...), I brought Cryptonomicon, Plato's Republic, The Fountainhead and The Name of the Rose. But those are my tastes.

Can you contact your group? "[Country] Group [X]" often has a yahoo- or similar group before departure, as did mine; everyone brought a few books, and we're in the process of trading them back and forth during PST. You might be able to do the same, and your group should have regular meetups during your service (conferences, evaluations, etc.) when group members can bring books and trade as well. I don't know about your country, but the PC Romania office has a mini-library of books that volunteers have left behind that gets regulary pillaged and rotated.
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 1:52 AM on July 6, 2007

I vote for In Search of Lost Time. I have an English translation in 6 volumes, but paperback and pretty light. You'll never get tired of it, and it'll last a long time on each reading.
posted by piers at 2:05 AM on July 6, 2007

If you have a PDA or are bringing a lappy or something similar Baen books has many many ebooks online for free: http://www.baen.com/library/

Lots of fun stuff if you are into Science Fiction/Fantasy

If you are just going to use it for ebooks, you can get an old palm cheap on craigs or ebay since you don't need a huge amount of computing power to run mobipocket.

posted by legotech at 4:00 AM on July 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Gormenghast trilogy should last you a while. Can you bring a PalmPilot and a majillion e-books on it? They can also hold movies, crossword puzzles, etc.
posted by Hey, Cupcake! at 4:15 AM on July 6, 2007

Montaigne’s Essays, although a little dry, are immensely comforting and down to earth. There's lots of them (some are better than others) and they're very re-readable IMHO.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 4:15 AM on July 6, 2007

Seconding Hey, Cupcake on the Gormenghast trilogy. It's an immense piece of writing, very dense, and very wonderful. One of these days I'll finish it.

William Gibson's books tend to be similarly dense, but quite small in physical size.
posted by saturnine at 4:50 AM on July 6, 2007

When I went to Malawi, I brought all the books I hadn't had the time or motivation to read in the US -- Toqueville, Isiah Berlin, Nietzsche. To my surprise, these books were as heavygoing Malawi as they were in the US, and, as in the US, I managed to find 'better' (easier) things to do. In the end, I left about thirty pounds of world classics in Africa.

Moral of the story is don't bring stuff to Africa that you don't have the discipline to read in the United States and don't waste precious poundage on books that you might not like. Read the first twenty-thirty pages and if you like it, bring it.... if you aren't sure, don't waste the space.

Definitely bring some comfort reading too.
posted by bluenausea at 4:52 AM on July 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

nthing ebook reader or pda, and adding Project Gutenberg as a source of free ebooks. I love my pda for reading in bed (easier to manage than a book when lying down) and also for playing sudoku and solitaire.
posted by happyturtle at 4:55 AM on July 6, 2007

I know you specified "hypothetically," but in practice every Peace Corps office and regional house that I have ever been in has had at least a small bookshelf, and more often a reasonably large library, full of books for you to borrow. Plus, PCVs trade books directly among themselves -- current bestsellers become really hot property, as are copies of current TV shows from the US (this is changing, however, as more places get access to satellite and cable TV and the internet). Depending on where you are stationed, you will be in an office or regional house anywhere from once every six months to every day; you may meet up with other volunteers more frequently. So you will only ever need a couple of months of books, at the most, at any one time, and if you are in an area with lots of other volunteers or other anglophone expats you will be able to exchange books as often as your heart desires.

So I would say bring a couple of your favorites, books you can return to time and again, whether that is the bible or Harry Potter, plus a couple of brand new, just released books that will make nice additions to the lending library. But don't waste valuable luggage space carrying a year's worth of books, and don't convince yourself that if you are normally a genre-fiction fan that you will magically become a Shakespeare scholar just because you are living in Mali. (That said, I did know several people who used the time to read rather hefty tomes that they had never tried before -- "War and Peace" is popular, as are collections of plays and poetry. But that kind of writing has to speak to you for that to work.)
posted by Forktine at 5:28 AM on July 6, 2007

Seconding all that bluenausea said-- don't take classics just because you "should" read them. I don't find Shakespeare comforting at all, so that would a be a terrible choice for me and maybe Moby Dick and War & Peace will be that way for you.

N'thing a Norton's Anthology-type book. You'll find some old favorites in there (assuming you liked English class) and a mix of things to read depending on your mood.

My personal collection would be: a few Austen for comfort, an Anthology for new reading, and a modern blockbuster or two for excitement and trading.
posted by parkerjackson at 6:26 AM on July 6, 2007

If you have only one book: Les Miserables (unabridged of course).

Besides being a redeeming story it's also an education, and delves deeply into the philosophy of philanthropy, something worth knowing when undertaking the Peace Corps.

Yeah... definitely Les Mis.

What not to take:
Any Plato, Descartes, Smith, Marx. Theories theories theories. There's no comfort in them.
posted by Galen at 6:33 AM on July 6, 2007

After N'thing the L'Engle, Shakespeare, and Bible recommendations, I'd also add a) C.S. Lewis' Narnia series and b) Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy.
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:34 AM on July 6, 2007

Oh! If you have two books: the second could be Deep River by Shusaku Endo.

Such a re-readable book with such depth of human character.
Very good thought provocation for a personal journey, and kindly done.
posted by Galen at 6:35 AM on July 6, 2007

Having been through some vaguely similar situations I would bring a few hefty tomes that are suitable for swapping amongst other English speakers that you meet. I would also bring some basic drawing tools (travel water colours, pen and ink), a sketchpad and maybe a book on how to draw.

For the particular country or region I was planning to visit I would look in some travel guides to see about any mentions of classic literature relating to the place - and try to get some of that.

Finally - and perhaps most importantly - I would try to pick up some local language guides.
posted by rongorongo at 6:58 AM on July 6, 2007

Iliad and Odyssey
posted by uncballzer at 7:08 AM on July 6, 2007

Practical answer: Just bring a few light paperbacks that you haven't read yet. I read a TON of books when I was in the Peace Corps, but certainly didn't lug them down with me. Forktine's right: Volunteers tend to swap books a lot, and travelers leave them behind. The Peace Corps office should have a decent selection, although the good ones don't linger on the shelf. We had a lot of fun sharing books, although not everyone read them at the same time, it lent to lots of interesting discussion. Among my crowd, Barbara Kingsolver, Conrad McCarthy, and Kurt Vonnegut were very popular, as well as the Harry Potter books. I also recommend Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy.
posted by emd3737 at 7:49 AM on July 6, 2007

My first thought would be - they do have books in Africa. They even have bookshops some places. Maybe if you were going to the moon...
posted by criticalbill at 8:23 AM on July 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Don't worry too much about weighing down your luggage with a bunch of books. There is a HUGE book trade culture among Peace Corps volunteers - everyone brings a couple books they like and those books will get passed around until the covers are falling off and the pages have turned the color of your locale's dirt. These "common books" also become a popular discussion topic among PCVs.

I'll second bluenausea and forktine, as well. The classics can be horribly dry and difficult to get through when you're looking to reading as a major form of escape. I read about 80 books in a year when I was doing my service, and I grew to like that comfortably quick clip with which I was moving through books. A slow and arduous "classic" would just make me frustrated that I was getting off my pace. Of course, you could be a completely different kind of reader from me, so YMMV.

Just about every Peace Corps country has several "volunteer meeting places" - be they the country headquarters, a PCV leader house, or a de facto meeting house run by a fellow volunteer. Usually these houses are in cities, central locations, or popular vacation areas, and they inevitably become populated with nearly every sort of book you could want. Don't worry, you'll find plenty of classics in these places, as plenty of people have come before you with the good intentions to read Ulysses or The Complete Shakespeare. Strangely enough, the spines on these books always seem to be the least broken...

Also, remember that you will inevitably end up carting these pounds and pounds of books around the country on crappy African transport. And believe me, the only thing worse than spending umpteen hours on a dirty, stinking African matatu is spending umpteen hours on a dirty, stinking African matatu with a huge bag full of books that you probably won't read.
posted by i less than three nsima at 8:43 AM on July 6, 2007

I don't know if you're trying to set up a plausible desert island scenario or if this is a real concern. My landlady is in the Peace Corps in Africa right now and I mail her books. Peace Corps people also swap books like crazy because other people mail them books. It's not the moon. If it was me, I'd d/l as many ebooks as I could get my hands on to a flash drive or a digital book reader with long battery life. I'd also bring the bible because at some point maybe that way I would finally read it.
posted by jessamyn at 8:54 AM on July 6, 2007

This (and a laptop) should be all you need.
posted by dersins at 9:04 AM on July 6, 2007

And maybe a solar charger for the laptop.
posted by dersins at 9:05 AM on July 6, 2007

Don't bring anything you wouldn't be OK ditching when your bag gets heavy.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:09 AM on July 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Gravity's Rainbow
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 9:54 AM on July 6, 2007

Given the scenario jordanian2 describes, I would try to take something that I could read over and over and that would reliably make me laugh out loud every time.

In my case, that'd be Shakes Chauce Bridget Jones's Diary.
posted by Orinda at 10:28 AM on July 6, 2007

Cormac McCarthy: Suttree and/or Blood Meridian. Both endlessly rereadable.
posted by newmoistness at 11:44 AM on July 6, 2007

I just spent a year volunteering in the Marshall Islands. I brought two novels. I *read* 108 books. You should not have a problem.
posted by maya at 12:02 PM on July 6, 2007

When I went into the PC I lugged several pounds of books including 'War and Peace', Thoreau's complete anthology, etc.

To be honest, I enjoyed discovering new authors, ranging from Stephen King, Albert Camus, or Ken Follet and rediscovering authors - Ray Bradbury. Similar to Forktine's post, the PC house in the capital had a library/I found the books there.

If I had to do this again, I would only bring a few lightweight paperback books by favorite authors along with a few new ones.

I would have given several friends/family members 20 dollars and told them to mail me used books or magazines every few months. I would have paid money to have something besides that battered Newsweek that PC will send you every month (usually a few months late).

I also would have purchased more books in the capital city- books for kids in French. There were no books in my village - any written material, even just with pictures was something that kids and adults alike enjoyed. Depends on the country you are going to visit, of course.

I've never had so much time in my life to read - I miss it.

Have fun.
posted by Wolfster at 12:02 PM on July 6, 2007

War and Peace is really, really good. You could reread it a lot. You could spend time thinking obsessively thinking about many parts of it. The character relationships, narrative, historicity, philosophical issues, etc. are enough to keep you going for years, if that's your kind of thing. I love that book. It might likely be my desert-island book. I wouldn't take it on a stressful Peace Corps trip, though.

For that, I'd want something less involved and better for stress relief, funny/escapist things. Personally, I would probably go to thrift and used book stores and buy vast quantities of old SF/fantasy/Agatha Christie/western paperbacks (well, I would if I didn't already have bookshelves full) and ask an obliging friend to ship some to me periodically, giving all but the best away when I'd finished reading them.
posted by fidelity at 12:28 PM on July 6, 2007

Finnegans Wake. I wouldn't expect to make any real progress on it in Africa any more than I would in America, but it's an awesome book to have on you.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 1:10 PM on July 6, 2007

I haven't yet had time to read it, but in this situation I'd bring Paul Scott's Raj Quartet.
posted by splendid animal at 5:05 PM on July 18, 2007

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