A few years ago, I wound up in a rented apartment in Jerusalem with a bike and several weeks with not much to do. Even better, my good friend David – who runs Tmol-Shilshom, the best bookstore café in Israel — volunteered to be my guide. A few times a week, he showed up at my apartment at 6 AM with his mountain bike strapped to his car and pretended he was taking me on a hardcore adventure.
I’m an avid biker and was looking forward to racking up miles and scaling some hills, but I quickly realized that any outing with David was going to either start or end in a café – preferably both — with the biggest part of the adventure hinging on the waitress or the coffee. We hoped both would be delicious. Although I had biked thousands of miles on past trips, during that summer David taught me about a different kind of adventure.
David’s perfect outing is one where he doesn’t need a car, or a bike, or a canoe, or even his feet. His favorite journey is in the kingdom of books. He told me that some of the richest and most powerful experiences of his life happened while he was sitting in his armchair, reading an amazing book. And looking at him savoring his coffee – with his bike safely strapped to his car – I knew he was right.
Between sips, he admitted that at times he could live vicariously through other’s ideas, experiences, and words. And even if he lived to be a thousand, he’d never reach the many places, concepts, and plots that he’s sort-of experienced through the books he read. But he’s quick to point out that this is not a passive sport by any means and he brings plenty to the table to make the adventure his own.
I chuckled, but he insisted that “even if we both read the identical book, it wouldn’t be the same one. Reading is the sum of the experiences that both the author and the reader bring to the table. So the extent of my imagination is a crucial ingredient in this partnership. The more I’m ready to glide into the book’s realm, the greater the impact.”
I nodded, but reminded my friend that, like a good book, no adventure is the same. We can both be climbing the same hill, but have a completely different experience depending on past climbs and the state of mind and fitness that we bring to bear. Just the thought of climbing a hill was enough for David to motion for another cup of Joe.
Our waitress was a dark-haired Yemenite beauty with a quick smile that made me fidget in my seat and I’m quick to remind David that you can’t flirt with a book, but he shook his head and gave me a sly smile.
“I think you CAN flirt with a book! In fact you’re much more likely to flirt with a book than with the waitress,” he said. “And when the day is done, you’re more likely to end up with your book in your bed than the waitress. So which is more real?”
Knowing that he scored a point, and despite my disappointed gaze at the graceful figure walking away, David continued his sermon: “I love being totally immersed in my reading,” he said. “I can taste the ocean, sense the jungle, and imagine the views that an author describes. I can feel the love, share the miseries, and be exhilarated for those characters I have never met. Needless to say, their being ‘real’” or ‘fictitious’ is irrelevant. If the text is well-crafted, they’re all real to me.
It was Aristotle who reached a ground-breaking insight — ‘in each character, we actually see sides of ourselves.’ In this sense, visiting a good book has a psychological potential to extend our travels. I’m not saying that one should give up on first-person experiences, but I’m saying that a good book is much better than a good nap — certainly if it’s raining.”
I mumbled something about not if I was napping with my Yemenite waitress. He looked at me with a blank stare and continued to expound:
“Ronen, you can travel while reading a book; you can read a book while traveling. It’s actually a part of the same journey. I once read a marvelous book about the fountains of Rome. The writer did an excellent job throwing in art, architecture, and free-style memories and emotions, all for the purpose of introducing the fountains as he saw and understood them. Visiting Rome from my home through his eyes added layers that I missed when I was there. He saw magic. I had only seen fountains. I’d rather take his view, really.”
I savor the last sip of my mint tea and take in the magnificent hills surrounding the ancient city of Jerusalem. It’s a sunny day and we’re about to cruise down the first hill that winds through a scented pine forest that will bring us closer to a delicious meal at David’s café. You can join us, or read about it in my blog. Which do you prefer?