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Words of the Dead

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The Words of the Dead

In Guatemala I made an off-handed comment to Andy the Hobotraveler that I only read books written by dead people. I was then just making a half hearted jest, but now I realize that I was speaking true. I am a voracious reader; I love books- I love touching them, I love looking at them, and I thoroughly love their company – but I have realized that the lion’s share, if not all, of the books that I read were written in a time that is not my own by people who are no longer living.
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Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
in Gyor, Hungary- June 14, 2008
Travelogue Travel Photos
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I think that I share this habit with the other readers that I cross Paths with from time to time. We talk of Dostoyevsky, Melville, Kerouac, Khayyam, Santoka, and Cold Mountain; we talk of writers who pushed the bounds of their times, who sought for some essence on the other side of what was laid in front of them; we talk of men who made their lives and their words classics. Though we seldom raise the name of one of our contemporaries as being of a comparable caliber or even worth acknowledging at all. It is as if the world of writing is an antiquated habit that was carried out solely in the annals of near, as well as far, history.

Or perhaps a writer needs to croak before they can be respected and properly oogled over.

Where are the writers of today, who are writing of today? I ask myself this question often, as I try hard to come up with one living author that I can stomach. I find this a very difficult task. And as I look upon all of the assembly-line (ghost written) paperbacks shelved in grocery store aisles and in the airport shops, I have no answer to this question.

It seems as if reading and writing was the general pasttimes of literate societies for centuries. People read daily, knew the classics by heart, and they wrote: they wrote letters to each other, they wrote diaries, and they wrote books (publishable or not). Writing was an art, and it was normal for people to throw themselves into it with gusto. I gasps as I read a random biography and realize that huge portions of it was assembled from fragments of letters that the subject wrote or had written about them. Entire biographies are seriously constructed from the ruins of long-departed letters. People once wrote their thoughts and shared them to others, who in turn would always keep them preserved for posterity under lock and key. I can remember one day in rural Laos when I was traveling with Stubbs, and he looked up at me from the stump of earth that he was sitting on and said something to the effect of, “Letter writing was once an art, and people would write not one copy of their letters, but many, so that they could always preserve their words.” Stubbs then penned off a letter to his friend Mike, and I was taken aback by my thoughts of how peculiarly novel it was to watch a man crafting a letter.

I wonder what written relics the biographers of tomorrow will excavate from the records of their subject’s lives. Will they dig through old haphazardly composed emails full of short-hand ineloquence? Maybe the entire art of writing will soon fall on its face and there will no longer be a need for biographers. Maybe the writers of tomorrow will take on the sorrowful title of blogger.

We live in a world of rampant literacy, and the residual fruits of this glorious time I find to be remarkably bitter. In a time whose literature praises encrustations like Dan Brown, I must agree with Chatwin when he was forced to question his talents because one of his books made the bestseller list.

I know that there are writers out there still hanging on the fringes of society, drinking down joys of miseries, and writing away their tears in the gunk-strewn gutters of the post-industrial world. I know that there are people who dare to seek horizons from the insides of homes and high-rises, who look upon strip malls, highways, tourism, and 7-11’s with a wayward glare, and who spend their lives downing all the days “type, type, typing on the typewriter.”

Or maybe we all just read the books of the dead with our mouths and pens politely kept quiet.

I miss the days when people seemed to have the time necessary to compose: to compose poetry, music, words, and art. The fear of starvation seems to have starved out the imagination of the contemporary world. I have no fear of starving. . .

I am told that supply and demand control the world, and, if this is indeed true, it is the stump-headed who are making the demands. The writers who knowing write words for the stump-headed are the ones who obtain the means to fill their bellies.

The rest wallow silently in the gutters.

So silently, in fact, that I do not even hear their wails

I sip a mug of Yumi’s white tea from behind a third floor window of an old house in Hungary trying hard to think of the last time I met a poet.

Links to previous posts:

  • Czech Republic Travel Photos
  • In Gyor Hungary with Japanese Friend
  • Friends on the Road, Bratislava to Gyor
The Words of the Dead

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Filed under: Eastern Europe, Europe, Hungary, Travel Philosophy

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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