A quote to inspire a personal story can be a key to thinking about what has inspired and influenced us in life. As such, it is useful to writing memoir…
“We read to know we’re not alone.”
— William Nicholson, Shadowlands
MAY I REPHRASE Willian Nicholson’s statement? ‘We read to know we’re not alone, and to know that others have had the adventures we would like to have’.
I want to mention three books that inspired me when young. They are books quite different but they are all about journeys.
It must have been when I was at the end of my teens or just a few years later that I walked into a bookshop. This was something I did often and it is still something I do a lot. Browsing, a title caught my eye. I picked up off the shelf, read a sentence here and there, thought it sounded intriguing and bought it.
The book appealed to me at that time of life because although it had been written well before, it spoke to us at a time when we were searching for a different path into life than that offered by society. The book was The Dhamma Bums.
But that is not the book I want to write about here. It inspired me to seek out others by the same writer. So it was back to the bookshop to peruse those shelves again. This time, I bought a paperback called On The Road. It was a tale of adventure and movement, movement by road across the USA and adventure in life. Like The Dhamma Bums, this book spoke to me. It spoke to so many others too over the decades and I think it still might so that. Oh, the author of those two books was a man by the name of Jack Kerouac.
I went on to read more of Kerouac’s work but not long after discovering him I came across another book that inspired me. I had never heard of the author, Peter Matthiessen, but it was the title that caught my attention — The Snow Leopard.
The book relates a journey by foot into remote regions of the Himalayas. It also relates a parallel journey made in the author’s mind.
Matthiessen accompanies a friend who wanted to study the bharal, the Himalayan blue sheep, but for Matthiessen the journey is one on search of insights into buddhism and to clarify in his mind events back home in the US.
The pages flow with the detail of their journey, the places, the people, the mountains. This is a step-by-step reading experience. It enthralled me and it inspired me and I suspect it had that impact not only because it was an adventure in a place far, far from home (this was the Himalayas before the backpackers, before the tourists) but because at that time I, too, was interested in buddhism. Maybe, though I don’t know if it was so, I was looking for my own insights.
And did Metthiessen sight the elusive Himalayan snow leopard? You will have to read the book to discover the answer to that.
Another book. Another place. This time it was not the high mountains of the Himalaya but the coast and ridges of the remote Pacific islands. The Marquesas. The Marquesas in the 1930s. The Marquesas before they were discovered by footloose westerners, the time before tourism.
Was it again a title that attracted my attention? Fatu Hiva, after all, is so uncommon a title that is is sure to attract the eye roving the bookshop shelves. I had already read Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki so In guess the mental stage was set for Fatu Hiva.
It is the tale of Thor and wife, Liv’s time on one of the Marquesas. The book combines archeology and adventure. Archeology, in discovering the stone structures and carvings of an earlier people on the island, in the forest. Adventure of the physical, geographic kind in their crossing and recrossing of the island’s central mountain ridge.
There is also a note of discord as relations with some villagers go sour, the couple crosses the range to build a shack by the sea on the other side of the island. There they lived off the land and the sea and there the coming of a man forced then to remake the return crossing of the island. There, they live for a time by the coast in a cave until they take passage out in a trading vessel.
Why were these three books inspirational to me? I think the reasons are both societal and personal.
Societal, because at that time in Australian society, as elsewhere in the Western world, there was a mood of readiness for change in the air. It seemed, to many younger people anyway, that the staid society of previous times was due for overhaul.
Personal, because I was at that time of life when I was open to influence and ready for my own change in life.
Those books spoke of other people, other places, other ways of living. Their influence, I think was more subtle than visceral, more to do with ways of thinking about the world and a lot to do with other ways of being.