A Whale of a Tale: Bookish Vacations and Literary Landmarks

Nantucket lighthouse

The past month has been a whirlwind of last minute book deadlines and long distance road trips. The boyfriend and I spent a week mid-April in Cape Cod. It was pre-season so it was cold, many things (including the Nantucket Nectar juice stand, curses!!) were closed, and it was generally pretty empty. With our inn, the surrounding restaurants, museums, beaches, national parks, towns, and–on the day we went–the entire island of Nantucket, being relatively unpopulated, rather than feeling lonely, we kind of enjoyed the feeling that we had the place to ourselves. Though I definitely want to go back in season when it’s warm, sometime.

We went to Nantucket, mostly because I was dying to check out the Whaling Museum which ended up being SO WORTH the 2.5 hour ferry ride each way (the ferry itself was awesome, so bonus points). If you’re into history, lighthouses, seafaring, etc., I highly recommend it. But there is one entire wall dedicated to the various harpoons used–along with graphic illustrations–of the whaling/killing process, so if your love of animals completely outweighs your fascination and need to know things (I like knowing All The Things, so even though it was sad to know how many whales were killed and how barbarically it was done, it was still really interesting) then maybe not your cup of tea.

To my great surprise, the island and museum actually had a major literary connection: Did you know that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was directly inspired by a real Nantucket whaling voyage? Truth!

Nantucket used to be the biggest whaling capital in the world and ships of natives would go to sea for years at a time, sometimes not returning for as many as four years, in order to hunt sperm whales, whales that provided the most valuable oil (taken out of their head cavity) that burned clean and was used to make candles and to keep lighthouses burning brightly. (Fun Pennsylvania fact: When oil was discovered in 1861 in Titusville, PA, whaling went out of style and the industry quickly died. So, hurray, PA for saving the whales!) One particular ship that left Nantucket’s shore, the Essex, sailed to the South Pacific, where it encountered a MONSTER sperm whale in 1820. The ship was 87 feet long and the whale was estimated at 85 feet long; a pretty even match.

At that estimation, the whale was twice the size of the skeleton on display at the museum (shown below to help your imagination).

Nantucket Whaling Museum

Do you see, in the bottom of the photograph, that boat? That boat fit about 4 men, just to give you a size comparison to the skeleton. Personally, I, as a post-JAWS generation individual, think it’s RIDICULOUS to go floating around in the ocean hunting something that’s not only bigger than me but three times the size of my floatation vessel…

They tried to kill the whale and, in response, the irate whale attacked and totaled the ship. The survivors floated on the ocean for 92 days in 20-foot back up boats that leaked and eventually, after eating the organs of those who died naturally, they resorted to drawing lots to decide who would sacrifice themselves next for their colleague’s next meal. Interestingly enough, three of the men who returned home wrote memoirs about their experiences on the boat and eating their cousins and former neighbors. It didn’t mention this in the museum, but I doubt these memoirs were well received. I mean, they were living on an ISLAND for the rest of their lives, with less than 10,000 people (similar to my college town) and they put on record who they ate. I’m sure relations were uncomfortably strained, at best. This really great Smithsonian blog post, “The True-Life Horror that Inspired Moby Dick” discusses the details of the shipwreck and how the survivors were received (some without much judgement, some more so) if you’re interested in reading more.

The rest of the vacation followed with a rather bookish theme. Went we went to Provincetown, the highlight of the day was the town library…

This was the outside...

This was the outside…

And this was the inside. It is a BOAT. In the children’s section of a library!! (I can’t imagine how they all resist climbing aboard, something that, according to numerous signs and to our great disappointment, is strictly prohibited.)

This. THIS. Awesome.

This. THIS. Awesome.

We also went on the Cape Cod Potato Chip Factory Tour…

Cape Cod Potato Chip Factory Tour

…and went to one of the most heartbreaking Red Sox games (pouring rain storm, then, they had the lead but gave up FIVE RUNS in the top of the ninth, ugh.)

Fenway Park

The last day, we stopped in to visit/pick up a friend in Cambridge for the long drive back to Pennsylvania and spent the day hopping around various bookish attractions: The Raven (a used bookstore), the Harvard Bookstore (AMAZING), which also had an Espresso Book Machine named Paige M. Gutenborg, which I stared at, practically drooling, like I was hypnotized, watching books get printed on demand (Side story: Last year, at BEA, someone told me there was an espresso machine behind our booth and I WAS SO EXCITED being the book nerd I am, but when I got there it was an actual, coffee beverage espresso machine and I was terribly disappointed), and the Curious George Store which had a small but respectable children’s book section.

It was strange, going on a vacation that didn’t include a bathing suit–a first for me–and though I had been hoping for it to be a complete break from everything stressful and everything book related, some last minute page proof corrections and panicked email correspondences did seep into the vacation. And I didn’t get any fiction writing done like I’d been hoping [deep sigh] but it was great to just have a break and sleep in late and simply recharge. Thankfully now, the book is officially and completely done (more on this later) and now EVERYDAY feels like a vacation (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it IS a huge relief).

A bookish-themed vacation isn’t terribly unusual for me–I love visiting author’s homes, like Emily Dickinson’s house and the Mark Twain house and the Edgar Allan Poe house in Philadelphia–but visiting a place that inspired a great work of fiction was definitely a first for me this year. How about you? Do you check out libraries, bookstores, and literary landmarks while on vacation? Any places you’d recommend planning a visit to this summer?

Dear Bookmobile, A Love Letter

Yesterday, my boyfriend stayed at my quiet new home to do homework (and to exhaust the Energizer Kitten, for my sake) while I went to work. He didn’t plan on having a very exciting day, but excitement thrust itself upon him when, to his great shock, the musical melody of an ice cream truck leaked through the window crack.

“Ice cream?” he wondered, with a mixture of great anticipation and confusion. “In January?” Also, it was early afternoon and local children were definitely still at school, which seemed like an ineffective schedule.

When he peeked out the window, he was confronted with the sight of a large white bus painted with colorful cartoons. Apparently, my local library system has a Bookmobile, with it’s own, independent book collection, and according to the official Bookmobile schedule, it travels through my neighborhood every other week! I feel so catered to. Though, unfortunately, it only visits during the work day and I will not be able to explore the shelves myself, my boyfriend has already promised to take orders and check out books for me. Also, I will obviously travel (by which I mean, get lost) to wherever the Bookmobile is on Saturdays because I must experience this awesomeness myself.

First thing tomorrow: getting a local library card and then hunting down the Bookmobile.

I’m liking this plan.

Hey Girl, These Are a Few of Book-Lovers’ Favorite Things

Hey girl (or guy), if you haven’t heard about the recent Ryan Gosling fad in the book world yet, it’s about time you did. There has been a fiery explosion of popular tumblrs, one to satisfy every breed of book lovers, in which attractive photographs of Ryan Gosling are paired with variations of supportive, comforting comments and awesome pick-up lines that make the frustration of a broken copier (among other things) melt away.

Do you work in publishing?

Ryan Gosling Works in Publishing too. And he loves his coworkers.

Do you love reading YA literature?

Ryan Gosling Reads Young Adult fiction too. And sometimes he cries.

Do you love burrowing among the dusty shelves of a library?

Hey girl, Ryan Gosling likes the library too.

Do you typeset books, like Typographer Ryan Gosling? He understands your struggles.

And, personally, I just love that Ryan Gosling loves museums. Because they’re one of my favorite places in the world.

Also, I really love NPR and StoryCorps. The fact that Ryan Gosling hearts it makes it that much better.

There are some others, like Hey Girl, I’m a Serial Killer–which I think kills the mood–but this article provides some other options if none of the above float your boat.

Another thing which only reading/writing/grammar Nazi/English major nerds like us would enjoy is the new Broadway comedy, Seminar, starring Alan Rickman, aka Severus Snape.

In SEMINAR, four aspiring young novelists sign up for private writing classes with Leonard (Alan Rickman), an international literary figure. Under his recklessly brilliant and unorthodox instruction, some thrive and others flounder, alliances are made and broken, sex is used as a weapon and hearts are unmoored. The wordplay is not the only thing that turns vicious as innocence collides with experience in this biting new comedy. This is its world premiere.

It looks hilarious and I want to see it so badly. Writer’s Digest is currently holding a contest to win free tickets (see instructions on how to enter to win here), but if that doesn’t pan out, I’m catching the train up to NYC and paying full price to see it. Anybody want to come along?

Dear Indie Bookstores: Stop Judging Books by their Covers

When you’re driving, sometimes you encounter some very important people–read, jerks–who break all the rules; they go fifty miles over the speed limit, weave around you in closely-packed traffic, and almost cause four car crashes before they speed out of sight. Some people get mad at these rude drivers and let out a stream of nasty, name-calling expletives. I, along with other optimists in the world, prefer to believe that they have a good reason: their wife is having a baby, perhaps, or maybe they’re rushing someone whose finger just got bitten off by a rabid wild monkey to the hospital.

Well, something similar is going on in the bookselling world right now. Readers are going to the physical, brick-and-mortar book stores, talking to friendly and well-read booksellers, getting book recommendations, perusing the shelves, reading through a few pages, and then writing down the ISBN number–or taking a picture of it on their smartphones–to purchase it much cheaper on Amazon.com. As it stands right now, whether indie or corporate (like Barnes and Noble), booksellers are pretty much united in a hate war against Amazon. Not that I can totally blame them, because Amazon is using some dirty tactics themselves. If you haven’t heard about it yet, Amazon has designed a Price Check app and they’re encouraging all consumers to go to a physical store on Saturday, December 10th, take a picture of the bar code, and compare it to Amazon’s listing price. (For further details on this, read the Wall Street Journal article.) Just for doing that, Amazon will take an additional five dollars off up to three purchased items. As one rightfully outraged bookseller puts it, Amazon’s app is essentially “spyware” using other people’s stores as their own “showroom.”

The result? Feeling that their businesses are threatened, bookstores are lashing out. Not just at Amazon, but at readers. Whatever you prefer to call them–whether “thrifty shoppers,” “smart shoppers,” or “unloyal customers”–these readers are now also labeled as the enemy; they’re given hostile glares in the store and are bombarded with pointedly unpleasant articles, shaming them for their activities.

I have to make a confession about myself before I continue: when exploring a bookstore, I often write down the title and author of new books I’m interested in and then leave a few hours later without making a single purchase.

Some of you are probably feeling the hair on your back raise in outrage (not that I’m accusing you of having a hairy back) and you’re already calling me all those things that you normally call those obnoxious, rude, jerky drivers that you encountered on the road today. For a moment, I ask you to suspend your anger and consider that I belong to the second party: those people who have a really good reason, if asked. Consider my reasoning first.

I currently live in the suburbs of Philadelphia and for as long as I’ve lived here–read, age five–there has never been an independent bookstore. When I lived in NYC this summer, there was one on practically every corner and I couldn’t resist purchasing something every time I walked into Three Lives or St. Mark’s Bookshop. However, home has only ever had the options of Borders and Barnes and Nobles (now reduced to only the latter). My annual total of book-buying purchases are split about 50/50 between Barnes and Noble and Amazon Kindle books.* Some extreme indie bookstore supporters might criticize me for not driving into the city for all my reading needs and frequenting an indie bookstore there. On occasion, I will, but frequently I won’t because:

  1. It takes forty minutes to get to the closest Philly indie bookstore
  2. Parking costs a minimum of twelve dollars
  3. I have such an appetite for books that I would never have the time to travel that far for books as often as I need them

And this ravenous bookworm appetite is what brings me to my next point: though I might live by Erasmus’s motto, “When I get a little money, I buy books. If any is left, I buy food and clothes” (in fact, I’ve completely deleted my clothing budget this year in favor of more reading material), but as I’ve dedicated myself to working within the book-loving publishing industry, I can’t quite afford to buy every single book I want to read. That leaves me with only one alternate choice.

Do you want the NYC Public Library to go out of business?

That’s right. You guessed it. I’m talking about the tried and true, free public library system.I love my library, but due to budget cuts, it’s under constant threat of closing. To keep afloat, the hours of operation have already been slashed and my favorite library has unfortunately been transformed into a “Popular Fiction library.” When I asked a librarian what this meant, exactly, she told me that they would add more couches, a coffee machine, and reduce the book collection to include primarily popular titles and authors (read: much beautiful literary fiction got booted and Stephen King now has a whole bookcase to himself. Hence, the source of my undying resentment towards him). All of this was to be done, she explained, so that the library was “more like a Barnes and Noble.”

So this is my dirty little secret: I go in bookstores and write down book titles. Then I go home and log on my computer. I put all of those titles on my goodreads to-read list. And then I go to the library and get free hard copy books, free audiobooks of the best and newest fiction for my 1.5-hour commute, and free kindle loans. I pay late fees often and gladly, because it’s less than buying the books and it supports my local library at the same time.

So, Dear Bookstores, hear my plea: I understand that you have to prepare for the worst. But sometimes, consider holding off on those expletives, give a reader a break, and believe that she’s writing down those book titles to support her local library.

*I love my Kindle and the ebook reading experience and am not ashamed of it. I also love Barnes and Noble and having their massive store nearby to browse. I think splitting my purchases between the two is pretty fair.