A Reader’s Guide to Planes, Trains, & Automobiles

From The New York Review of Books:

It’s well known that the invention of the railways increased the sales of books. Aside from talking and staring out of the window, what could one do on a long journey but read? Anna Karenina was reading on a train when she realized how powerfully attracted she was to the young Count Vronsky, how ready to change her life.

But could it be that trains and buses and ships and planes have actually increased the amount of writing that gets done? Certainly, they quickly invaded the writer’s world. Virginia Woolf’s first memory was of her mother’s dress on an omnibus. Dickens was almost killed in a train crash and subsequently wrote “The Signal-Man,” generally reckoned to be one of the best ghost stories ever. Dostoevsky’s The Idiot opens with a long scene on a train. Likewise, Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata. And, of course, Tolstoy died at a railway station while escaping from his wife after forty-eight years of one of literature’s most fruitful dysfunctional relationships.

D.H. Lawrence had a particular affection for the green trams that took Nottinghamshire miners into town for a Saturday night out. They “plunge off into the black industrial countryside, up hill and down dale… perky, jaunty, somewhat dare-devil, green as a jaunty sprig of parsley out of a black colliery garden.” Later in life, he fell in love with steamers, too. “And swish! went the sea as we took the waves,” he tells us in Sea and Sardinia. “This curious rhythmic swishing and hollow drumming of a steamer at sea has a narcotic, almost maddening effect on the spirit.”

. . . .

But of lists and anecdotes there would be no end. I want to go further and suggest that there is actually a deep affinity between a book and a means of transport, just as there is an evident analogy between a story and a journey. Both go somewhere. Both offer us a way out of our routine and a chance to make unexpected encounters, see new places, experience new states of mind. But without too much risk. You fly over the desert, or race across it, but you don’t actually have to experience it. It’s a circumscribed adventure. So it is with a book. A novel may well be shocking or enigmatic or dull or compulsive, but it is unlikely to do you too much damage.

Then, by mixing with strangers of every class and clime, the traveler is bound to become more aware of himself and of the fragility of identity. How different we are when we speak to different people! How different our lives would be if we opened up to them. “What am I myself?” asks Anna Karenina, looking at her fellow passengers on the train to St. Petersburg, “Myself or some other woman?” This was exactly the kind of instability that Pope Gregory XVI foresaw when in the 1840s he banned railways from the papal states; “chemins d’enfer” he called them, fearing people would be able to escape the benevolent surveillance of their loved ones, their priests, simply by buying a ticket. The good pope feared books, too, and banned quite a few. For the secret agenda of the writer is always to shake up the reader’s identity through the vicissitudes of his characters, who so often find themselves traveling.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books