Friday, June 21, 2013

Mike Cooper: Camping = Reading

Car Camping
Much like we were, only cleaner

MIKE COOPER: When I was a kid, in the 1970's, our family went camping in the summer. Nothing fancy: mostly state parks in the Ozarks, where we could drive the station wagon right up to the campsite and unload our canvas tent, Coleman stove, big cheap sleeping bags and all the rest. We weren't alone. Other sites had more families, older folks taking their summer vacation, college kids down from St Louis, the occasional long-distance traveler with a pop-up trailer. Not so many RVs back then. No one seemed to spend much money -- hot dogs was about as gourmet as the food got, and typical gear wasn't much more complicated than an air mattress. Island Campsite
Campsite with Boston on the horizon

Today it's a different story. We still go camping -- my favorite destination is our annual trip to one of Boston's harbor islands, where we can cook mussels at the water's edge while jets take off from Logan and party boats cruise noisily past. But almost no one else we know does. Instead, there's the Patagonia catalog, with its gorgeous photos of trekking in the world's most difficult and spectacular terrain. Somehow we've gotten to the point that "camping" means thousands of dollars of high-tech gear and a National Geographic destination. If you're not bivouacked halfway up a sheer wall in the Himalaya, or sea-kayaking to remote islands in the Andaman Sea ... well, you can always watch Travel Channel. Something similar may be happening to reading. Decades ago people commonly read books, and they did so casually, without much thought. Sit on the bus, pull out a paperback. Take your lunch in the park, bring along a library book. Wait an hour at the DMV, finish that novel your friend passed along last week. 

Hobo Camp
The book club meets

I recently read two memoirs of the 1930's, and both mention that old magazines and paperbacks were common in hobo jungles: men who had to beg food and sleep on the ground still had books around them, to read and share. Today, reading a book is moving from "now and then" right through "uncommon" and into "eccentric." I often carry a book to the playground while our children are there, and that draws comments. Our pediatrician was quite struck by our children having books with them, rather than smartphones. What was once utterly commonplace is now almost ... odd. Furthermore, the cost curve is accelerating. Just like "proper" backpacking now requires an Arcteryx pack and Marmot outerwear, reading increasingly requires an expensive electronic device. So is this the end of literacy? Perhaps not. Radio should have been killed off years ago, and yet thrives. Despite cars people still ride bicycles -- more and more of them all the time, in fact. Just because the book is no longer the default go-to for transient entertainment doesn't mean we've given up on it completely. And perhaps technology will be its savior, in the end. Once everyone is wearing whatever succeeds Google glasses, they could watch videos and take pictures of their annoyed friends. But maybe, maybe they'll find something to read while they walk instead. 

  Mike Cooper is the pen name of a former jack-of-all-trades. Viking will release his novel FULL RATCHET, sequel to CLAWBACK, on July 3rd. Mike lives outside Boston with his family.

Note from Lucy: I love talking to Mike when I'm stymied while writing--he either recommends shooting someone or a chase scene. The writing always goes better after that...


  1. I’m guessing that those playground “comments” aren’t necessarily asking for recommendations on the newest book releases, which actually saddens me a great deal . . . and cheers to your children taking books with them instead of phones! Every child that reads and loves books is a promise that their generation will not forget about the importance of reading a book. It’s impossible to imagine not having something to read . . . let’s hope there’s always a place for a book, no matter what the form . . . .

  2. We takes books with us everywhere. Why read the old magazines in the MD's office when you have a book! A book is still the cheapest travel I know. Dee

  3. I love my books, but I'm a dedicated e-reader now. It never leaves my side, and I always have a new book at my fingertips.

    We went camping every weekend throughout the summer until I was about 13. We had butterfly chairs (metal folding frame with a heavy canvas cover that hooked over the corners) that I spent hours in with my books. I was a skinny little kid, and liked to read in them upside down, with my head on the lower edge of the frame and my feet dangling over the back.

  4. That's quite a vision Sandi!

    We spent vacations crossing the country with a pop-up trailer, 4 kids, and a dog--and always books!

    I love the campsite with the view of Boston, Mike!

  5. I was just in my garage yesterday noticing all the camping gear that will never again be used... not if I can help it! Leaky tents. That's what I remember. And it ALWAYS rained. And we were too cheap to spring for a motel.

    Yes, I agree, the upside was no cell phones (remember waiting for the phone booth and saving up quarters to pay?) and real books.

    Congratulations on the new book, Mike! How about a teensy clue as to where you're taking Silas Cade this time?

  6. I guess my family is anachronistic. We all read. My husband is more of a periodical reader, but my sons and I definitely love books. And we still camp. In tents. Without spending an arm and a leg.

    Thinking about that particular quirk of ours has brightened my morning. Thank you, Mike!

  7. Another new series to experience! Thanks for sharing, Mike.

    My idea of roughing it is a Holiday Inn with no mini-fridge. I was never a willing camper although I did spend some time in tents with Girl Scouts. My husband and I spend a year touring the country in our motorhome back in the late 90s. But that had a microwave, satellite tv, and air conditioning.

    I never go anywhere without a book. As a kid, I would read in the car but I'd get a headache. Now I have my audiobooks or iBook.

  8. Gee, as far as I'm concerned, reading on an e-reader is just as good as reading an old-fashioned book! To me, it's the content that matters, NOT the container. I've been using an e-reader for a couple of years, and at this point I can't remember which book I've read on the e-reader and which one I've read the "old-fashioned" way. (This reminds me that my Shakespeare professor told us that she couldn't remember which of Shakespeare's plays she had read and which ones she'd seen in the theater. That's happened to me, too, with Shakespeare.)

    I'm still never without a book (whether "real" or electronic) - or two or three or four - and always have something to read in waiting rooms, on trains, at home, at the beach. My dad put together a collage of family photos back in the seventies. I hated the photo of me that he picked for the display - chubby twelve year old girl having her usual Bad Hair Day. He was surprised I didn't like it and said it was his favorite picture of me as a child. I thought he liked it because our family was enjoying a day at the beach. (His only day off was Sunday and he worked long hours during the week, so family time was limited.) He and Mom are gone now, and one of my sisters has the collage hanging up in her house. I looked closely at it a couple of years ago and noticed that that chubby twelve year old with the bad hair is holding a book in her hands as she looks up at Dad.

  9. Sandi reminds me that I always had books along on our childhood camping trips -- I'd forgotten about that. They didn't always survive the rain and mud very well :)

    Roughing it is no longer my style, particularly. In my twenties I could sleep on concrete with a bit of cardboard or a sweater for a pad; now I use the thickest, heaviest Thermarest available and still wake up cranky!

    Hallie, thanks for asking about Silas. He's off to Pittsburgh this time, in the decaying Rust Belt and fracking fields of Appalachia. More here.

  10. Reading and camping? Well, even if I had en e-reader, the battery wouldn't last long in the wilderness. And though I always take a book with me, usually by the time we find a campsite, make camp, make supper, eat supper and clear up, it's dark.

    But my solid book time when camping comes when my partner is at one end of the canoe fishing, and I'm at the other end, reading.

  11. Silas - Appalachia - fracking? Can't wait for your next book, Mike!

    We are in our 50s and have no kids but we still go camping and always bring a goodly number of books along because after a nice hike and a quick dip in the lake or ocean (depends where we've pitched our tent) there is nothing quite like settling in to a comfy camp chair with a book. A little bug dope behind the ears and a campfire that will later become a cookfire keeps the blackflies at bay, and we are two happy girls.

    One summer in my twenties I think I slept outside almost as many nights as I slept inside. It is an exquisite pleasure that I hope I never grow too old to savor.

    Our gear is mostly LL Bean, culled from the outlet. (Another advantage of living in Maine ...)

  12. There must be something in the air - hubby and I had the "are we ever gonna use this stuff again" conversation yesterday. We decided that in the next 12 months we were going to try to use all of it - the tent, the screen house, the backpacks, water purifier, etc. I'll let you know how that goes!

  13. Brenda, you make it sound like heaven:)

    Ro, that's a good idea, make a plan to use it or lose it. We drove by the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania last weekend and it looked like lovely camping territory!

    Mike, I graduated past the thermarest and insisted on bringing a double foam-rubber mattress that we dubbed "big-mat"when we went camping as adults. I think it's still up in the attic waiting...

  14. "Water purifier" - that brings back some memories too! My first backpacking trip (age 16) we just assumed there would be water available; of course there wasn't, and arriving at the end of a hot day, bottles empty, scorching thirsty ... we then had to boil river water, and drink it hot.

    When I traveled abroad, in Asia, it was right before plastic water bottles showed up for sale everywhere, so I mostly used iodine or boiling. (Except in Tasmania, where we could drink directly from streams and lakes - I wonder if that's still true?)

    These newfangled hand-pump purifiers seem like the cat's meow, though.

  15. I was walking to the gym and reading a book the other day and a man on a bicycle stopped to tell me, with typical oakland enthusiasm, that he and i would keep literature going for the whole world. He insisted we were the only readers left. When I told him I write for a living he gave me a pitying look and rode away.

    You know what's funny, Mike? All those years when we were lugging our books around (remember Walt's Bike store canvas backpacks?) I felt like I was missing out on something. Some other activity that more interesting people were doing. Now I realize that I was *becoming* interesting with every word I read.

    Thanks for posting the picture from that cherished trip. The big boy took my old kindle to his park ranger job this summer...but I don't think it gets much use. All the rangers, on their days off, play games on their laptops. And my daughter spent all of last afternoon assembling a fake fast-food burger meal from a japanese kit. (???) I guess I probably would have done that too, given the choice. :)

  16. I can so relate to this post! Some of my happiest childhood moments were camping in the Sierras in our canvas tents and cotton sleeping bags. A big treat was getting to have Tang for our morning juice. And always books.

    We camped when our kids were young, too, in New Hampshire, and they were (and are as adults) constant readers. There is hope for the world.

  17. I don't camp any longer. But I still read--and my kids (now grown and busy as can be) still read. That makes me happy.

    I've nothing against e-readers, but they're too expensive for kids whose families are in poverty--as mine was when I was young. Books were my salvation. I hope libraries don't get rid of all their physical books so they can still be the salvation of other kids.

  18. Walt's Bike Shop! There's another memory. I just looked them up and they're still around, remarkably. And Tang, gosh, haven't had THAT since I was about ten.

    The post was more provocative than I actually believe, regarding the future of reading. Most everyone I know still reads books, including novels, and our daughter and her peers (tween-going-on-teenagers) read even more than I did at their age. Still, the lure of those electronic screens is hard to ignore ...

  19. Hi Mike! (Hi, Sophie, too!) What a great post. I think we can take it for granted that all of us here either posting or reading Jungle Red read:-)

    My family were NOT campers, so that's an experience, other than a bit with Scouts and in college, that I missed out on. But my parents loved to take car trips all over the country, and of course we always had books, although much to my disappointment I got motion sick if I read in the car. (Still do...)

    Mike, I loved the comment about the hobos. One of the most memorable and poignant things I've ever seen in London was a homeless guy who camped out every night in front of Peter Jones department store in Sloane Square. (For those of you not familiar with London, this is VERY swanky real estate.) This guy would get settled with his cardboard and his sleeping bag when the shops closed, and beside him would be a huge pile of tattered paperback books. He didn't have a place to sleep, but he could still read.

  20. I had a book with me today while I was waiting at the doctor's office.
    The last official camping trip my husband and I took was Memorial Day weekend in about 2003 maybe when we lived in Minnesota. We went Up North, not realizing it traditionally rains that weekend. And so it did. After one night my husband wussed out and got a motel room. I've never let him forget it either! We did get to see a young moose on the road, so that was a highlight. Now we're back in Texas and it is too freakin' hot to camp in the summertime, altho we did once upon a time.

  21. I would definitely spend holidays in that area. Thanks,