Every summer we Americans are reminded of how little vacation we take. . .
. . . And of how important it is for us to take take time off from work, to escape the stresses of our daily lives, to restore ourselves by getting away from our normal routines.
The experts all agree: it’s essential to our health, our emotional well-being, our longevity, our relationships, our productivity, our career success, our level of happiness with life.
But there’s something strange about how the concepts of ‘escape’ and ‘vacation’ have become so tied to the idea of travel that they have almost become synonymous with it.
“Where are you going this summer?” is the typical question among the classes who can afford to travel. Or “Did you have a good summer? Did you go somewhere interesting?”
Vacation Travel and Its Toll
If, for some reason (lack of resources, ill-health, family crises, work obligations), you’re among those who would answer ‘no’ to those questions, you may find yourself feeling inadequate or deprived. Research on the impact of following friends on social media has found that, of all the social-media induced sources of envy people experience, reports of travel and leisure by others are by far the most intense triggers.
So, following our acculturated herd instinct, we go through the steps of doing, at whatever level we can afford, what is supposed to bring us renewal: an exciting, interesting, stimulating trip to somewhere that will give us a break from our daily environment (as well as enable us to hold our heads high when comparing our vacation experiences with those of others!).
We often enjoy these vacation trips immensely. The stimulation of novelty and being in a new place is undeniable. Our minds and awareness are expanded. We have a good time.The escape from our everyday surroundings does indeed make us feel good. We really do experience renewal and refreshment.
Focusing on the pleasures enjoyed, we shrug off the hassles of making and remaking travel arrangements, navigating crowded airports and jammed freeways, standing in long queues to visit famous places, jet lag induced by long flights, travel-born ailments, strange food indigestion, the discomfort of extreme heat, noisy hotel rooms or campsite neighbors, and the family or tour group tensions that can occur on a trip. These often make good war stories to tell when we come home.
But the toll these vacation travel experiences take on us often result in us returning from our ‘escapes’ more exhausted than before we left, sometimes sick even, needing several days to recover and recuperate.
I remember a particular vacation trip of mine. It was to attend a fascinating cultural event in a village some distance from the city of Jodhpur, Rajasthan. My non-stop return trip started with a bumpy early morning jeep ride to Jodhpur, followed by a 12-hour overnight train to New Delhi, and from there a three-stop international flight back to the U.S., reaching SFO in California 48 hours later in a state of total dishevelment and exhaustion. The recovery from that particular escape took over a week!
The High Carbon Footprint of Vacation Travel
Then there’s the reality that’s hard to avoid if you’re someone with a conscience and a sense of how dire the global warming future is.
For all the many social benefits of vacation travel — bringing people in contact with one another, learning about other cultures and ways of life, providing economic activity and jobs, creating resources to maintain world heritage and natural wonder sites — there’s the uncomfortable truth that it comes at the cost of placing increasing stress on the planet’s fragile ecosystem.
According to an article in the magazine Nature Climate Change, tourism accounted for 8% of all global greenhouse gas emissions between 2009 and 2013 — four times more than had been expected — and is projected to become a growing contributor to global warming. The July 29, 2019 cover of the The New Yorker brilliantly captures this reality of the heavy toll vacation travelers can place on the environment!
By the numbers, it looks like this:
- A family of 4 flying round-trip from Los Angeles to Cancun emits 2 tons of CO2.
- A family of 4 flying round-trip from Houston to London emits 7 tons of CO2.
- Every metric ton of CO2 leads to 3 square meters of Arctic sea ice loss.
Not good, no matter how you look at it.
An excellent resource I’ve found for enabling some degree of impact-and-guilt reduction about vacation travel is a UK site website called Carbon Footprint.
Besides providing some basic practical tips for how to minimize your transportation-based CO2 emissions and otherwise ‘be green on vacation’, it offers you a carbon footprint calculator and suggests carbon offset projects you can contribute to. If you’re going to travel, I’m sure there are other sites like this that can help reduce the carbon toll of your vacation.
But I would like to think more radically about all this. . . and invite you to join me in my own recently discovered low-cost low-carbon summer (and year round) vacation escape — an escape that lets you wander the world without causing any Arctic sea ice loss or enduring the wear and tear of real-life vacation travel.
Welcome to The Magic Escape World of Little Free Libraries
I’m all for escape. We all need it. We all have our share of stress, drudgery, and exhaustion from which we need breaks.
Even if our personal and work lives are relatively stable and worry-free, it’s hard to stay calm in the face of the multiple political, social, economic and environmental crises of our times. Especially if you’re someone who cares deeply about these public matters, and want to be engaged and informed, you can make yourself sick if you obsess about them all day long — and you end up being ineffective in making any difference.
What I fear about the Big Project Vacation Travel mode of escape is that it’s a chore to organize, it happens only periodically (sometimes only once a year), and the beneficial results usually wear off pretty quickly.
I’ve found that the best, most immediate, frequently repeated, low-cost, low-carbon, low-effort way I can escape involves a walk in our immediate suburban neighborhood (or a hike up the steep, crooked streets of the hills behind us), stopping at Little Free Libraries to see what books people have been reading, and what wonderful surprise may be waiting there for me to pick up.
Then, in luxuriant languor, curling up on a sofa in my home, or sipping a cup of hot chocolate in the privacy of a coffee house full of indifferent strangers, I lose myself in the novelty of a previously unknown world hidden between the covers of the book that came to me unbidden on my walk.
A Genius Concept Gone Viral
Started in 2009 by a man named Todd Bol in Hudson, Wisconsin, the Little Free Library book exchange concept (Take a Book — Share a Book), with its signature miniature schoolhouse structures perched on sturdy posts in front of people’s homes, has by now grown to over 90,000 and spread to all 50 states in the U.S. and 91 countries. Click here for an informative Medium interview article on the subject.
Todd Bol’s concept combined promotion of book reading, community building, and street art. People all over the place have taken the concept and made it their own. You can purchase a kit from the organization, or design and build your own. Then, if you like, you can register your site and become part of the worldwide network of Little Free Library ‘stewards’. The internet is full of charming images of these whimsical structures. Social media enable extensive sharing of information about them.
There’s also an online interactive map site where you can search locations near you, by zip code, by country, and by city and state or province. That’s for people who prefer the planned rather than the serendipity approach to finding treasures and escape travel. I tend to prefer the latter, which is more reminiscent of wandering the stacks of an old-fashioned library or roaming the streets of a previously unknown city.
Different from a Library or a Bookstore
I don’t know whether the Little Free Libraries were initially conceived of as a contribution to slowing global warming as well.
But I like to imagine there is at least a small ripple of an effect. Not just in promoting re-use of books, but as more people, like me, make the choice now and then to skip the ‘escape’ that involves fossil fuel to propel them physically to distant places, opting instead for an adventure available near at hand in the form of a book that beckons to you from a funny little schoolhouse structure perched on top of a wooden pole.
So how is this any different from going to your local public library, or a bookstore, or ordering a book from Amazon?
There’s a world of difference, I would argue, because one of the pressures of modern life from which we really need escape is the constant overabundance of choice.
How often have you gone to a library, or a bookstore, or searched online for a good book to read, and been so overwhelmed by all the possibilities that you end up paralyzed and leave empty-handed?
How often does reading scores of book reviews leave you in a complete quandary about actually letting yourself select one and immerse yourself in it?
How often do you even find yourself feeling a strange sort of guilt about all the good books you haven’t read?
As the old aphorism says, “Art is long, life is short” — there’s simply no way us humans, in our brief life spans, can possibly read all the wonderful books there are to read.
We can drive ourselves crazy with this knowledge, and forget that simple joy we had as children, when we used to delight in reading whatever was given to us to read, without concern about what other books we might be missing, or agonizing over selection.
This is where those Little Free Libraries come in, with a wonderful contribution to the simplification of your life and to providing you with the opportunity for a genuine vacation (from the Latin vacare, ‘to be free from duty or obligation’!).
Those wonderful book ‘stewards’ have gone to all the trouble of doing the curating for you, presenting you with a small handful of choices that have been vetted through the idiosyncracies of their unique minds and interests.
Each Little Free Library has done the work of a careful book selection committee to bring to you the joy of a small handful of ‘previously enjoyed books’. All you have to do is pick one, shut out thoughts of all other possible books, surrender to it, and go off with it on your escape adventure.
My Ultimate Escape Reading: Old Murder Mysteries
For some reason, many of the discarded treasures that show up in those Little Free Libraries, at least in the areas where I wander, are old murder mysteries.
You find them promiscuously nestled among books that reveal more precisely whether the owner of the curated collection on offer is a physicist, a spiritual seeker, an art lover, an armchair traveler, a sociologist, a poetry buff , a gourmet cook, a student of critical literary theory, or a fly-fishing enthusiast. It seems that reading murder mysteries is something that cuts across all sorts of class, educational, cultural, gender and age lines.
There was a time when I would not have given a moment’s thought to ‘wasting my time’ on such light reading fare as ‘crime fiction’. I saw myself as a serious intellectual. That meant my reading should be limited to great literature on topics of great humanistic import. Let other lesser humans indulge in mere ‘detective stories’ and ‘whodunits’!
Then, one day, I came to a session with the learned psychotherapist who helped me greatly with one of my long-ago professional and personal crises. Edith was an intellectual to her fingertips, raised in the brilliance and ferment of pre-Holocaust Vienna, a student of the great psychologist Alfred Adler. She was unwavering in her conviction that intellect in women is sexually attractive — encouraging the women she worked with to be unapologetically brainy and intellectual… and to just ignore the poor men who couldn’t deal with it.
Imagine my surprise when I found her home office lined with paperback murder mysteries! It didn’t fit my preconceptions about her or about the genre.
When I queried her, she said, “You need to let your brain take a break and escape from all the intensity. You need a vacation from all the seriousness of your work and your life. Mysteries are easy to read, undemanding, entertaining. They’re fun. They refresh and restore. And, for all their lightness of touch, they often contain wickedly astute comments about human nature and society, along with letting you visit all sorts of different social worlds and settings.”
And she put in my hands my very first murder mystery — Death in a Tenured Position, by Amanda Cross (better known as the feminist scholar Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, the first woman ever to receive tenure in the English Department at Columbia University). The subject was close to my concerns at the time (very close), the academic world she described was familiar (very familiar), her humor and characterization of academic types and of academic gender and other politics were hilarious. I was hooked!
Since then, and increasingly so since the advent of the Little Free Libraries, some of my best low-cost, low-carbon (and low-stress) escape travel travel has been to the fictional worlds created by mystery writers.
I can lose myself equally in the formal bygone worlds of the classic British mystery writers everyone knows, in the many banal, downscale or scrappy worlds of America’s contemporary tough-but-vulnerable women detectives, in the fast-paced worlds of international art theft intrigue, in crime fiction set in Mumbai or the French region of Dordogne, and in miscellaneous yarns of debatable literary quality that take me to varied places and ways of life I’ve never heard of or paid much attention to.
Whether I give myself permission to zone out into this escape for several hours, or catch a few minutes between obligations, I always come out of it with the feeling I’ve been somewhere that took me away from my routines and troubles, put no demands on me, let me be somewhere else instead of in that much overrated ‘be here now’ reality, and gave me a most wholesome dose of renewal and refreshment.
All that, completely free, with no wear-and-tear on either me or the natural environment, no guilt, no stress. . .
Can you beat that for a low-cost, low-carbon escape vacation?
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Karine Schomer, PhD is a writer, speaker, scholar, and a political and social commentator. She writes on Medium at https://medium.com@schomer44. In her essays, she explores the worlds of society, politics, culture, history, language, world civilizations and life lessons. You can read her writer’s philosophy in The Idea Factory.