Fully Booked on Any Day of the Trip
By VANESSA HARTMANN
S we are being driven through the palm oil groves of Costa Rica, my mother's head is buried in Keen's guide to Central American mollusks. My father is unsticking the clammy thin pages of a biography of Trotsky, and my brother is reading about obscure weaponry used in the Civil War. Every once in a while, a bump in the dirt road might cause them to look out at an idle herd of cattle or a ditch-digging operation. I would have a book on my lap as well if I weren't inclined toward carsickness.
We spend four days on the edge of the Corcovado forest where there are no phones or televisions and the electricity flickers. Land crabs with bulbous red claws guard their territory underneath the dressers while four-inch giant roaches keep our sheets warm, preparing to lay their eggs. During the day we snorkel and hike, and in the afternoons, as a boat takes us back to the camp, we fall silent in anticipation of our books. We had forced ourselves to leave them in the cabin for fear that they'd get wet. We walk straight to them, on the night stand, the bed, on top of the suitcase. The daily summer rains give us a two-, sometimes three-hour excuse to read.
My father shows me how the pages of his Trotsky book are mildewing from the humidity, the edges turning yellow and black. Later, at home, this will remind him of our trip. He sits on the bed after checking for roaches in their screened room, gets through a few more chapters, and drifts off to sleep to the steady rhythm of a blanket of rain.
On the porch of the cabin, my mother sits with her book of Ziegler and Porreca's "Olive Shells of the World," taking notes. When the rain transforms into a thick fog, I go down to the beach to pick up olive shells and small cowries to bring back to her so she can identify them. She saves the fresher ones to photograph for the field guide she's planning to write.
I try not to read when we travel anymore because I end up visiting the book and not the place. When I see our photographs of the blue waters off the Amalfi coast, I think only of Esther in her bathtub from "The Bell Jar." A summer family reunion in Maine reminds me of the streets of St. Petersburg, a place I've never been, where Raskolnikov from "Crime and Punishment" walked in a fever. I lost Grenada to the endless card games of Stephen King's "Hearts in Atlantis." (I was younger then, and not yet a literary elitist.) I still can't help myself most of the time on this trip. I brought a Dubus collection of short stories and two Julia Alvarez novels.
We must wait for my mother to finish the last pages of Anthony Doerr's "The Shell Collector" before we leave our rooms to go to dinner. I had given it to her because I felt she needed more fiction in her life. The books she normally reads on the phylogeography of mollusks are dry and leave little to the imagination. She has taken to fiction with a zeal that stops time while the rest of us stand by the door.
I realize that when she's finished the Doerr, she'll come after my Dubus and Alvarez. I go to my suitcase to hide them, but in the process I fall into the Dubus and now the family has to wait while I see what happens in "The Fat Girl."
On every trip we take, we bring one suitcase for the multitude of books we inevitably buy along the way. However, there isn't exactly a Barnes & Noble on every turn of the trail in the Costa Rican rain forest. By the halfway point of our vacation, we had read everything we had brought with us. In the slow afternoons of rain my brother sits, playing solitaire, his baseball cap shading his eyes from the dim overhead light. Perhaps he considers reading General Grant's biography again, checking for any facts he might have missed the first time. He writes these in those black-and-white speckled notebooks in the form of quizzes, tests, and exams. In another year, he'll graduate and be looking for a job as a high school history teacher, though my parents are pretty sure that with his incessant fact cataloging, he'll be working for the C.I.A.