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The right books in the right places

in Ark Review/Musings by

It’s July! Or, as it is known in Denmark, the month where almost literally everybody is on vacation. The city is empty, the streets are quiet and shops, with the exception of ark books, are closed. This month we will be tackling all things leisurely and bookish, with as much patience, time and space as this requires. We hope you will follow along, at your own leisurely pace. It’s summer after all. Today, Arker Emilie Bang-Jensen presents you with a personal reading list gathered from various places. Being a self-defined “space-sensitive” person, Emilie believes that there is a right book for every place. It just takes a bit of time to figure out which one.


 

For the past several years, I have been in and out of many different places. In the process, I have realized that physical spaces affect me enormously, more than I had thought and more than I would wish. To me, there are simply certain spaces in which certain things can be done and certain things cannot. For example, should I suddenly have the urge to write, I have the perfect vision in my mind of what the room should look like before I can begin, though reality rarely lives up to it. The same goes with books. There are simply certain places in which certain books make sense and others don’t. So, today, I give you a guided tour of spaces I have found myself in, and the books that would suit them. Perhaps it can serve as a small, personal guide for your future travels.

 

Bloomsbury, London

I lived in Bloomsbury for about a year while I was studying, and one of my favorite places to go was the small Bloomsbury Coffee House down in one of the basements of an old London town house. Here you could sit for hours pouring over your reading, your writing, or just the people coming in and out. It was in Bloomsbury that I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own for the first time, and was deeply touched by this narrator who, 90 years before, had had the exact same feelings about places and spaces as I. Granted, in Europe anno 2015, my gender was no longer barring me from having 500 pounds a year and a room of my own, but there was something poignant in this simple analysis that still rang true to me. I still return to this essay whenever I am feeling down in my life and need a wise woman to help me up.

 

Café de Tuin, Amsterdam

I stumbled across Café de Tuin on one of the small, cobbled side streets of Amsterdam, returning from work to the apartment I had borrowed out in the suburbs. Everything about the place had a feel of last century with an art deco interior filled with old timers burrowed in their newspapers and cigarettes. I ordered a beer, flirted with the bartender, and sat at the back. I can’t remember which book I read, but if I could chose now, it would be Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, where a very intoxicated American narrator roams around the streets of Paris in the 1930s, finding odd jobs and not making much sense but having the time of his life and contracting lots of undefinable STD’s. Perfect for summer in any European city, really.

 

Cumberland Lodge, Windsor

Any respectable university department in London seems to at least once a year host a gathering or conference at Cumberland Lodge, an old country house now run as a charity. The “house” is located close to Windsor Castle and shares the same local church as the Queen of England. So of course, one’s reading must be as English as possible in these surroundings. Jane Austen would seem an obvious choice, but I would go for Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm, a parody of the romantic rural English novel in which a well-bred town girl decides to impose her presence and will on her extended rural family. It was recommended to me by one of the only sane people at my university campus, Simon of Alpha Books, and it’s one of the funniest things I’ve yet read. It also makes it easier to shrug off the presence of the Queen, should she preside at your Sunday service.

 

Georgetown, Washington D.C.

For about two months while my boyfriend was studying at Georgetown University, I played unemployed American hausfrau. Everyday I would walk over Key Bridge from Arlington to the leafy paradise of the upper-upper class Georgetown area, framed by the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Apart from using the canal for my half-marathon training (I had to spend my time on something), I also sat by its cool waters to read. One of my favorite reads there, and most adequate for the place, was Joyce Carol Oates’ Black Girl White Girl, which tells the story of a lone, black girl on a scholarship at a liberal arts college in the 1970s through the eyes of her white roommate. It’s a perfect book for a college town marked by deep inequalities, both financial and racial – such as Washington D.C. And it also happens to have a river in it, a literary counterpart to my little Georgetown canal, or to the Potomac River right on the other side of the trees.

 

Seyðisfjörður, Iceland

For about three months last year, I lived in a tiny town at the end of a fjord on the east coast of Iceland. With mountains rising up on every side and snow swirling in at all times of day, I started to understand why some Icelanders still believe in fairies. It is a magical and dangerous place. My favorite read there was by Iceland’s very own national bard, Halldór Laxness, who won the Nobel Prize in 1955. His seminal work, Independent People, details the harsh conditions of a rural Icelandic farmer and his family caught between the old and the new world of the early 20th century. The book is a long, slow saga, a tough trek through the perils of self-reliance, with the Icelandic landscape as a brutal conspirator. The perfect pace and the perfect setting for an isolated town in which the surrounding mountains are the most defining feature of each day.

 

Café Prückel, Vienna

Only in Vienna would you be served up something as sinful as this for breakfast, innocently arranged on the silver trays. I lived in Vienna for five years as a child and still cherish its many idiosyncrasies. One of them is the traditional Viennese cafés where the waiters are still the same as in 1998, where opulent cakes are displayed in glass cases, and where the distinguished old and young come to smoke and chat. Café Prückel is the more famous of these places, and to really soak up the culture, Florian Illies’ 1913 is the perfect companion. Follow Kaiser Wilhelm, Thomas Mann, Oscar Spengler, Rilke, Freud and Kafka as they partake of that innocent, carefree summer before the obliteration of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It’s a nostalgic read, and a fun one, though of course only you, the reader, know the doom that lies ahead. Somehow a very good metaphor for Vienna itself – opulent, but no longer very important.

And now, I hope that with this guide in hand, you will go out into the world and choose the books that suit your location, your mood, and your time. Each space will yield something different if you let it, and the outcome will most likely, most certainly, be different from place to place, book to book, and person to person.

Aspiring writer and avid reader of fiction. Has an odd penchant for white, American male authors such as Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Franzen. Likes to discuss the failings of neoliberalism and other systems of oppression. Has yet to find a way to do anything about them. Had her eyes opened by postcolonial and gender theory (which has yet to do anything to her love of aforementioned white American male authors). Prefers Nescafé over real coffee, which everyone in the bookshop finds strange.

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