The ancient Israelites and I have something in common. When we travel, we tend to under pack the essentialsâ€”food, water, leavened breadâ€”and to over pack books. They had the Torah, which I imagine was totally impractical in the desert. I have a library card from the New York Public Library, my own kind of Mt. Sinai, and before I travel, I stop by and try to choose books to take. As I often travel alone, I take the choice of my companions very seriously.
During research for my first book, I headed to war zones and refugee camps to work with children, and needed reading that would inspire, uplift, inform, and occasionally, distract. I went with Virgilâ€™s Aeneid and Christopher Logueâ€™s War Music. I brought along Nelson DeMille for when I needed to escape, and there was always a book on the region where I was heading — Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric for Bosnia, Adam Hochschildâ€™s stunning King Leopoldâ€™s Ghost when I found myself in the Congo.
I took Rudyard Kiplingâ€™s Kim to Burma, where I would be talking to plenty of orphans and street urchins, but I brought along the first in the Hannibal Lecter series, Red Dragon, and a heavy book about the military junta, Living Silence.
I had my classics, my irrelevant thrillers, my informative nonfiction. It was all pretty clear and I always packed more books than I could ever read while I was working. I rarely travel for pleasure.
But then I set out on a year-long journey to far-flung and unlikely corners of the Jewish Diaspora. I didnâ€™t know what to bring. DeMille felt too profane. Kipling felt irrelevant. Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean was checked out.
Monday morning services at the largest synagogue in Tehran. Photo by Charles London
I couldnâ€™t bring anything too political, either, ruling out so much. Burmese immigration agents might go through my bags; the Iranians and the Cubans certainly would. One doesnâ€™t realize the limits on free speech in the world until one starts to choose books for a long journey. I had no desire to go to prison for a stray copy of Exodus or Portnoyâ€™s Complaint.