Monthly Archives: February 2016

ID 934 – The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Have you ever read a book that completely changed your outlook on life, love, and happiness? The first time I picked up the Alchemist I was going through a rough time. I was twenty years old and struggling with my identity and my sense of self. I wasn’t sure the right path to take and that’s when a friend recommended I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.

The book holds nothing back as we are dumped unceremoniously into the life of a young shepherd named Santiago.

The opening scene finds the boy spending the night at an abandoned church, he wakes up before dawn from a dream he doesn’t understand. He’s had the dream before, and he finds it unsettling. In the dream a child transports him to the pyramids in Egypt and tells him where he will find his life’s treasure.

The boy dismisses his dream as he heads toward a nearby town. He is looking forward to seeing a girl he met the year before, a girl he believes he loves. As he walks he plays out their future meeting in his head. His insecurities and anticipation dance across the page in the elegantly simple style that only Paulo Coelho can pull off.

Santiago wanders closer to the town and he tells us of his past. How he grew up a well-loved boy whose ambitions differed from that of his parents. His mother and father were far from rich, but they worked hard to send him to school and prepare him for a life of priesthood. However, before he could dedicate himself to the path of God the boy convinces his father to instead let him buy a flock of sheep and travel the world.

While this lifestyle has made the boy happy, like most of us he can’t help but dream of more. He wants to travel more, experience more, and when he gets to the town he finds a gypsy who pushes him in that direction.

The rest of the book follows the boy’s quest for his life’s treasure. At every turn the boy faces hardships, but in each one he finds the silver lining and becomes a better person because of it. He learns to interpret omens and follow his destiny. We get to witness discussions between the boy and his heart, and see them become friends. As he learns to trust his heart he realizes that the best way to live his life is in the moment, the past is gone, and the future may not come, but the present is perfect.

For me this story is about never giving up. There is a saying that the darkest hour is just before the dawn, meaning that you will face your hardest tests just before you succeed. I’ve found this to be true in every aspect of my life, from the simplest things like climbing a hill to harder things like major life goals. This book teaches us that when things seem impossible if we just hold our heads high and keep working at it we can do it.

Live Your Dreams

Another great lesson that can be learned is of love. In the book Santiago has two main loves, one he thinks he loves in the beginning of the book and his true love toward the end.

Many people these days settle down with their first love, someone they care about, but aren’t necessarily meant to be with. If Santiago had settled down with the merchant’s daughter from the beginning of the book he never would have followed his destiny or met the true love of his life in the desert.

We are all guilty of settling at some point in our lives. Whether we settle because we are comfortable or because we are afraid we may never find anything better we settle all the same. This book wakes up the part of your heart that wants you to follow your dreams and fulfill you destiny.

I think this is something we all face in our lives, maybe not with sheep, but with family, friends, or even lovers. It’s hard to say goodbye to the ones we love, but sometimes in order for us to be the best we can be we have to walk away. In most cases this decision is the best for both parties, but it’s not something people want to admit to themselves.

Once we are better people and have succeeded in our lives we can come back to those we love and if they still want us in their lives the relationship will be better because of it. When we let people or things hold us back it often destroys the relationship later on as we slowly begin to harbor resentment.

Paulo Coelho is a wordsmith like no other. His writing style is simplistic, yet romantically poetic. He makes us fall in love with every character, every animal, and every grain of sand he mentions in the book and then he begins to weave a story of pure magic. There are very few authors in the world that can produce books like this one. Books that can be translated to any language and still hold their meaning. Books that can inspire people of all ages to reevaluate their lives and follow their dreams.

In The Alchemist, the saddest characters are those who gave up on their dreams, the ones who were afraid of success and settled for mediocrity. This book has made me realize that even if I shoot for the stars and I don’t make it I can die happily knowing I tried. Many people die with the regret of never trying, of living a life that’s ordinary, and keeping their heart on a dusty shelf.

For me life is about living, about taking risks, and giving life everything you have, because when you try your hardest failure doesn’t feel quite as bad. I hope you read the Alchemist and I hope that it gives you all the courage you need to find your buried treasure, whatever that treasure may be!

I have donated the book to the world by leaving it in a public place for anyone to find and enjoy. You can see the pictures below.

Did you find it?

the alchemist inscription

the alchemist donation

the alchemist donation 2

ID 1313 – Christmas Guest by Anne Perry and Magic Hour by Kristin Hannah

I’ve donated the above books………………..Christmas Guest by Anne Perry and Magic Hour by Kristin Hannah. You can see them here:

book donations

Both great reads and I really enjoyed them.

I’ve left them in a public place in a doctors waiting room with an inscription inside the cover:

book donation magic hour

NOTE: I managed to miss-spell the website name – it should have two “l” in the word travelling.

Anyway, both books are gone so let me know if you find them and what you think!

A Guide for the Perplexed – Seeking to Understand Schumacher’s Work

“Our task is to look at the world and see it whole.”

A Guide for the Perplexed

If I were asked to put together a list of the great but underappreciated and little-known characters of twentieth-century fiction, I would almost certainly Oswald Hendryks Cornelius (deceased) near the top. He is the protagonist of Roald Dahl’s second and last adult novel My Uncle Oswald and is introduced at the beginning with the following words:

…I mean, of course, Oswald Hendryks Cornelius deceased, the connoisseur, the bon vivant, the collector of spiders, scorpions and walking-sticks, the lover of opera, the expert on Chinese porcelain, the seducer of women, and without much doubt the greatest fornicator of all time.

Is your interest piqued? It should be.

Which Book Would You Choose?

Now the reason I mention good old Oswald – that’s as much attention as he’s going to get in this little review – is because of a unique habit he had. Whenever he travelled he carried with him a box of his most beloved books. I’ll leave you to seek out the novel itself to discover their titles, but it got me thinking: if I were a vagabond, with or without the same sexual prowess as Dahl’s uncle, which books would my box contain?

My Choice – A Guide for the Perplexed

Blame it on a lack of reading experience or an unrefined literary palette, but after considering this question I decided that I would include only one: A Guide for the Perplexed by E.F. Schumacher. Since discovering a worn copy of it on my parents’ bookshelf nearly ten years ago, it has become almost something of a companion.

Ray Bradbury (if I can paraphrase another literary great) once said, in a discussion about Farenheit 451, that when he heard about the book burnings of Nazi Germany, he felt as though it had been people that were set aflame. A tad dramatic, perhaps. Yet I recall the story of Schumacher and how, on his deathbed, he handed a draft of A Guide to the Perplexed to his daughter and said, “…this is what my life has been leading to.”

So maybe there can be a life in a book.

Constructing a Philosophical Map

Schumacher’s intention is to offer what he calls a philosophical map – an understanding of the world, and the knowledge contained within it, that we can use to orient ourselves. It is constructed on the foundation of four truths he believes to be so all-consuming that they can be seen from wherever we find ourselves.

The question that arises, of course, is, “Where is it that I’m meant to be navigating to?”
Well, if you have ever asked questions along the lines of, “What does it all mean?” or, “What am I supposed to do with my life?” then you have your answer. What Schumacher has crafted is a guidebook, an outline that, “…shows where various things are to be found – not all things…but the things that are most prominent, most important for orientation – outstanding landmarks as it were….”

And that is exactly what he puts forward. In just over a hundred pages he sets out to offer a map that will enable us to seek three things. First, “A philosophy comprehensive enough to embrace the whole of knowledge;” second, “A system of meditation which will produce the power of concentrating the mind on anything whatsoever;” and finally, “An art of living which will enable one to utilise each activity (of body, speech and mind) an an aid on the Path.”

The Map Itself…

After a short section decrying the pervasiveness of material scientism, the journey begins with an acknowledgement of the various “levels of being”. Looking at the physical world, Schumacher notes that we see a great hierarchy of being, a succession of objects, plants and animals all displaying different characteristics. Human beings, he argues, sit at the top of this pyramid as the only living creatures possessing self-awareness.

I felt a huge sense of discovery, of page-bound wanderlust, when reading the first chapters. It was as though I were being given permission to imagine the world anew, to view myself as a stranger and cast off any presuppositions – allowed to investigate and draw conclusions about the world that existed in my own direct experience.

After looking at both the nature of progression through this hierarchy, and of man’s ability to correctly perceive the world, the author then proceeds to outline the four types of knowledge. Beginning by splitting human comprehension into four categories – self-knowledge (inner), knowledge of the world, of other people, and of oneself from the perspective of others – he then explores what the great thinkers, from Plato to Aquinas to Gurdjieff, have to say about each of these divisions.

The penultimate chapter is dedicated to the two types of problem present in the world – divergent and convergent. These terms essentially refer to those which can be solved absolutely (such as a maths equation) and those which do not have a definite answer (such as the question of right or wrong in a given situation) and which must be transcended.

What is the Purpose of Life?

You might not agree with it, but he does provide an answer. In just over a hundred words on a page towards the end of the book he outlines a three-part explanation of what he believes “…constitutes the true progress of a human being.” I won’t tell you what he says, you’ll have to find out for yourself, but I will say this: it’s not typical. It’s not about following your passion or helping to change the world or any other of the well-intentioned but trite cliches that pass as insights nowadays.

In a world where information is cheap and wisdom scarce, I believe that A Guide for the Perplexed is as relevant now as when it was published. It’s not a daunting book – you can read it in a few nights – nor is it particularly difficult to understand. Yet for the right person, at the right time, it can almost certainly act as an aid in navigating this unusual and poorly charted territory in which we find ourselves. Do give it a go.

ID 8970 – The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

“What kind of idea are you? Are you the kind that compromises, does deals, accommodates itself to society, aims to find a niche, to survive; or are you the cussed, bloody-minded, ramrod-backed type of damn fool notion that would rather break than sway with the breeze? – The kind that will almost certainly, ninety-nine times out of hundred, be smashed to bits; but, the hundredth time, will change the world.” The Satanic Verses

A pinnacle of postcolonial writing and kaleidoscopic jewel in the crown of magical realism, Rushdie’s “love song to our mongrel selves” is a gargantuan, smashed-up hybrid of everything under the sun. It is a meticulously-crafted, messy sprawl of a novel. Expansive and excessive, Rushdie imagines a world in which all borders are transcended, reality is provisional, truth illusory and subjective, and possibility infinite. Amid his seemingly limitless panorama of interconnecting influences, references and cultural citations, something truly new is born. Within this universe language is an instrument to create ideas and realities, curtailed only by the relative power of your mind.

I first got into reading Rushdie as a literature student, in love with language. Now, more jaded perhaps, I favour tighter, more economic prose, but in those days The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children were my absolute ideal of what literature could be. Rushdie celebrates heterogeneity in an ecstatic frenzy of styles, and concepts – as though someone high on acid has dived head first into a dictionary and surfaced with all the most florid, mismatched words possible.

The Satanic Verses also appeals to my infatuation with the pace and pulse of the Indian subcontinent. Brash, like her biggest cities and as colourful as her freakiest religious festivities, to understand Rushdie’s pluralities, I think you have to have experienced the sensual explosion that is India. The complex layered flavouring of curry, the constantly altering terrain glanced from train windows, riotous colour, the impossible gulf between wealth and poverty, the clash of modernity and tradition wrestling in teeming metropolises, a tangle of different language and dialects,the intensity of daily festivities, the pertinence of mysticism and the proximity of death. If ever there is a writer well place to discuss the shortfallings, tragedies and positives of our confused multicultural planet it is surely the British Indian intellectual?! In terms of imagery and cultural allusions I would struggle to cite a richer tale. Better read and more world weary, my obsession with Rushdie has waned, but The Satanic Verses remains close to my heart.

satanic verses inscriptionI donate this book to the world in the hope that it will set someone else’s on fire, as it did mine once upon a time. The themes of immigrant alienation as well as identity in general, and the controversy and censorship issues that come hand in hand with talking about this novel are also particularly pertinent in 2016.

As the novel opens two Indian emigres fall from the sky to British soils after their plane is hijacked; on landing alive one becomes the archangel Gibreel and suffers delusions that may be a product of schizophrenia or a God-complex (is there a difference?), whilst embroiled in an affair with an Everest mountaineer under the influence of her own ghosts. The other is abused by the police in the physical form of a goat-like Satan embodying the disorientation of the immigrant experience.

It only gets more nuts as it goes on… extended dream sequences (where all the controversial sh*t goes down) follow the prophet Mahound in Mecca in an Shaitan-inspired and later revoked revelation in multiple-Gods, as well as Indian peasant girl Ayesha as she leads her people to the Arabian sea and an unnamed despotic religious leader in exile. In this book nothing is sacred and even less is off bounds. Rushdie hops carefree, from the structures of epic high verse to a pastiche of advertising jingles, in any given sentence. The effect is a disorientating whirlwind that tackles and satirises a plethora of contemporary issues but never resolves or cements anything… as though he is all too aware of how impossible and fruitless that task is.

Writing a reductive, straight-forward digest of The Satanic Verses’ plot ignores what the title’s name conjures for most people. I have come to the novels’ baggage later because I believe it is second to the simple and profound gift that Rushdie’s epic provides the world – a privilege which you will have to read yourself to enjoy…

This doesn’t detract from the fact that when one says The Satanic Verses, we think of one of the most high-profile literary scandals in recent history: what happened after the book was published is like something out of a novel… a Rushdie novel at that! Reacting to the blasphemous passages about Muhammad, there was outrage in international Islamic communities – the book was banned in India, burned in the UK and protested against in Pakistan. Then came the fatwa from Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which saw one of his publishers stabbed to death and forced Rushdie himself to live in hiding, under police protection for years. The novel’s publication became a battleground between religious totality and freedom of speech. See Rushdie describing his thoughts here:

It should be noted that, what on surface reading comes across as an insult to Islam, is actually bigger than that. It is a satire against ‘oneness’ and totalitarianism in all it’s forms. Rather than an attack on any one faith the text rebels against singularity of thought, politics and culture, arguing that in our postmodern societies these dictates make no sense.Speaking after the Charlie Hebdo attack, Rushdie said “religion, a medieval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms” and it is this “medieval unreason” rather than faith itself that the novel mocks. Against the fraught backdrop of rising Islamophobia in Europe and global abuses of freedom of speech, I no longer feel qualified to judge the inherent rightness or wrongness of this literary act.

Perhaps the reader who finds this book will have more clearly defined views… here’s a picture of where I left it (in a smart London cafe) – if you found it please share your views on The Travelling Book website! (either comment below or donate the book further – see how here)

satanic verses leaving place

A Philosophy of Walking By Frederic Gros

“The freedom in walking lies in not being anyone; for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life.”

A Philosophy of Walking

I love to walk. The majority of my best thinking is done on the hoof and, equally though contradictorily, I walk to forget and to free my mind. I walk to find that rhythm beyond the physical where you could easily continue at a steady pace and in silence, forever. I love to stroll aimlessly in strange, new places; I love to feel the wind whip my hair across my face, my nose streaming and ears aching from the wind, along the coastal trails in the county where I grew up; I love setting off with a head full of noise, in cities at the dead of night, when sleep evades me and returning to my door hours later with tired legs and a mind at peace; I have walked with friends in Serbian forests fearing for bears, alone in the nirvana of Nepal’s Himalayas and newly in love through the territories of Myanmar’s remote Eastern hill tribes. I love even those hungover Sunday morning park walks, when putting one foot in front of the other is ordeal enough to send you gagging for the nearest Bloody Mary.


Walking – the definition of pedestrian! I have never been able to elucidate quite why I love such an utterly unremarkable and commonplace activity so much, but always felt certain that there was something vaguely transcendental in a good stomp. Imagine then my glee on discovering that someone – namely frenchman, Frederic Gros – had written down everything I think but cannot express about walking and so much more. A Philosophy of Walking is a ramblers’ credo, a pensive and astute meditation and, most strikingly, a blissed-out love song to the simple act of moving forwards on two feet.

A dull subject I hear you say? Think again… I donate this book to the world, in the knowledge that it will delight those already converted to the church of the humble hike, but also in the hope that it will enlist some new believers..! May it wander the globe from owner to owner – carried in rucksacks down muddy country paths and up steep inclines. This book is as romantic and wistful, as it is considered and smart. I’ve read Dickens, Thoreau (who Gros’ references) and Rebecca Solnit try to conjure the magic of walking, but they are left plodding and monotonous in the face of Gros’ sprightly prose.

A Philosophy of Walking is irregularly structured around historical examples of great walkers, drawn predominantly from literature and philosophy, building a case for walking as an aid to thought. Most of the most erudite ideas in the book are actually to be found in Gros’ own musings, which are interspersed between the historical anecdotes. As the book unfolds and Gros’ argument grows, a fraternity of those on foot builds, until it is easy to imagine Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rosseau, Gandhi, Thoreau and Kant marching side by side through the pages. Glorious company!

Of these engaging tales and testaments an early section on Nietzsche is particularly gratifying. His intriguing biography is well-documented enough: the opium dabbles, associations with early fascism and final breakdown in Turin at the neck of a flogged horse. However Gros shines light on another side to the madman philosopher, and it is truly delicious to discover. Nietzsche never sat at a desk. All his ideas were born on long, strenuous walks through wild terrain – he composed all his work this way, scribbling notes on small notebooks, whilst perched on rocks. “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”: Yummmmm! Equally as engrossing is the discussion of the original ancient Greek Cynics, who roamed the world like hermits and laughingly renounced all material possession and the trappings of society.

Gros is an academic – one of the world’s leading Foucault scholars no less – but A Philosophy of Walking is wholly readable. Rambling through his various different ideas and stories, the pace of the book almost feels like a country stroll. He talks about the difference between contemplating the landscape when walking, as opposed to the faster pace of being in a vehicle and how features of the scene slowly distinguish and reveal themselves, coming into view and gradually fading. This could be seen to mirror the development of his own ode to walking. His central ideas and arguments come on slow and steady, built up through successive and sometimes repetitive observations. Some readers may find this momentum, or lack of it frustrating, but I suggest saving this book for a long trek, away from the city, when you feel you have all the time in the world.

Gros sees walking as an exploration of presence and a way of better understanding your relationship with the world and, more importantly your relationship with yourself. The idea of the walker losing himself, his history and future, is at base a call for purifying contemporary life, through a deliberate simplification. There is a great passage where he tells of trying to reduce the weight of what you carry on your back, by repeatedly asking yourself “what is necessary?” The satisfaction of slewing off un-needed kilos, like superfluous veneers or frivolous life decisions, could just as easy be a rally cry for the disaffected and unfulfilled kids of urban capitalism.

This is just one string in a complex arrangement. The book covers pilgrimage, promenading, and Gandhi’s protest march to the salt planes of Dandi and on route takes in a plethora of different and sometimes contradictory ideas on the subject. What emerges is a staggering and singing case for closing your laptop, turning your phone off and getting outside into as wild a place as possible. Do it – and take this book along for the journey!

ID 07983 – The Gormenghast Novels By Mervyn Peake


What better testament to the power of literature, than Peake’s melancholy Sepulchrave who goes insane and thinks himself an owl, after his beloved library is burned to ashes?!? In the beyond bonkers, elaborate world of The Gormenghast Novels, ritual and tradition govern everything, and Sepulchrave (the 76th Earl of the novels’ universe) finds his only solace in books. In donating this book to the world I hope it will be a refuge and distraction from the monotony of routine for many readers across the planet, as it has been for me…

Gormenghast is a great crumbling mass of stone and grandiose architecture, inhabited by one of the most surreal and extreme sets of characters you are likely to come across in any novel. This is a world I have occupied and adored for many years, reading and rereading the novels since my teens. I invite you join to me there! Let’s be frank, the trilogy is looooooong, but it is the sort of book that you can dip in and out of over time – leave on a bedside table or save for soapy, candle-lit baths. It definitely is NOT a kindle-kinda-book, you’ll want to turn the pages for real with this one! I have a confession to make here: I have never finished the rambling third installment Titus Alone, which even Peake himself faded out on and never fully finished writing. If whoever finds my copy gets to the final page (…that would be page 1023!) then please upload your thoughts on the site and let me know what happens to Titus.

You can see where I left the book in a public place in this picture………..did you find it?

mervyn peake book

Insider’s tip: The Gormenghast Novels are also excellent read outloud. Peake delights in language (more on this later) with luxuriant and poetic descriptions, but it is chiefly the dialogue that makes it such a joy to read outside your head and to someone else. From obese Chef Swelter’s sweaty, flabby stutter to Doctor Prunesquallor’s manic laughter and affected linguistic flourishes, Peake’s character’s are born through their rich range of theatrical voices. Even the names – Gertrude Countess of Groan, Keda, Sourdust and his son Barquentine – sing on the tongue and express so much.

The driving, destructive force that propels you through the creaking corridors and limitless vistas of the citadel/state of Gormenghast is Steerpike – a machiavellian protagonist and a villain who you may find it hard to hate. We experience the castle’s kitchens, schoolrooms and ancient hierarchies from the ground upwards as Steerpike climbs up the power ladder, manipulating people and situations as he ascends.

We encounter a Countess who prefigures the internet’s cat obsession (she is constantly surrounded by hundreds of feline friends); we witness an embittered grudge between two servants escalate into violence in the twilight; we grimace as a Stockholm-syndrome of sorts takes control of Clara and Cora, the batty identical twins who are bullied into arson; we watch young Titus, the infant Earl, rebel against the castle traditions and we pity Nannie Slagg as she bumbles about in her efforts to protect him. I don’t want to give anything of the eccentric plot away here, but will only say that by the time you reach its bloody climax you’ll be unsure where you stand: with the decaying traditions and crumbling bricks of Gormenghast or its merciless and immoral, young assailant.

To my mind, Peake’s creative majesty makes other universally popular fantasy novels – Harry Potter, Lord of The Rings, Game of Thrones – look imaginatively barren and unoriginal. The genius of Gormenghast lies in its proximity to a reality we all know and recognise. Its narrative is a story well-trodden in both art and history. The tale of the low-ranking, socially excluded nobody who rises to take on the dusty establishment. The concerns of the bizarre and otherworldly figures are also not so dissimilar from our own. In base terms the ridiculous Irma Prunesquallor just wants to be loved, Fuchsia is a lonely daydreamer and Flay is the dark horse who you think exists only for the sake of his job, until the plot twists to reveal his true colours. For all its unsettling familiarity, Gormenghast transports us to a totally parallel place, where everything is warped and amplified to take on proportions of the grotesque and insane. Peake describes everything in such fanatically minute detail, that the writing feels like realism and the reader is utterly absorbed in this uncanny, caricature of a universe.

Another reason for my deep and enduring love of this book is Peake’s playful and exuberant use of language. He spends whole passages rambling on about the corridors and towers, like somebody taking their time over a fine meal, adding endless condiments and aperitifs. This is a common trope of the fantasy novel – some wise guy famously parodied Tolkien, writing 20 pages of waffle about a journey up the M1. However, for me, Gormenghast is different. There is nothing dry about the writing, meaning the lengthy, languid descriptive parts flutter by in pure, lexical pleasure. I’m also pretty sure that, like Lewis Carroll (…and of course, Shakespeare) before him, Peake was partial to nonsense language and made up words to suit his purposes, when English didn’t provide him with an accurate way to express his madcap sentiments!

A lot of readers and critics may well try to make Steerpike, the castle and the rest of the shenanigans that go on inside it, into an analogy for various different historical occurrences or moral quandaries.The Dickensian names and real-world parallels make this tempting. However I am pretty convinced that Peake intended The Gormenghast Novels to mean nothing at all – and that is exactly why they mean so much to me. As a literature graduate who ordinarily delights in dissecting the complexities of authors’ intentions and literary innovation, Gormenghast is a breath of fresh air: an intelligent and exquisitely well-written novel, for the sheer sake of it. Peake plays with language for the joy of words and creates an imaginary world filled with truly extraordinary characters and occurrences, for the love of escape alone.


The Joy of Work – Dilbert

I thought about it over a few days and decided that the first book to be donated to the world would be “The Joy of Work – Dilbert’s Guide to Finding Happiness“.

Why this one?

Well it made me laugh out loud – mostly because it struck a nerve and reminded me of some miserable times in offices doing work that bored me to tears, knowing it added nothing to the world or its inhabitants and I just wanted to get out of there.

I loved the bit about “Laughter at the Expense of Others” – I’ve tried a number of these and they actually work.

I reckon anyone will find something they like in a book that has a real good laugh at workers everywhere. If you don’t laugh at least once then you are either a very miserable git or dead. You decide.

The book has been left in a public place! Have you found it?