Trash or Treasure: the Sailor's Book Swap

I was prepared for South Pacific cruising in every way: not only was my sloop low in the water with weeks of supplies, but my electronic reader was filled to its two gigabyte brim. Yet I still found myself inexplicably drawn to book exchanges – serendipitous treasure troves of dusty reading for those long, tropical evenings under a thousand and one stars. Even Suwarrow, an uninhabited atoll and a Cook Islands National Park, boasted a thriving book exchange, despite being a tiny speck of land hundreds of miles from – well, the next tiny speck of land in the vast, watery Pacific. Perhaps Suwarrow boasts such a well-stocked book swap because of (and not despite) being such an isolated place.

On second thought, however, “well-stocked” might not be the best descriptor for this (or any other) book exchange. It’s more of a mixed bag, in the words of Tom Neale, who brought Suwarrow minor fame with his memoir of solitary atoll living, An Island to Oneself. Neale took one glance at the castaway books he found and “decided that half of them were not worth reading at all – a decision I reversed after a year when I was only too glad to read anything.” Indeed, some of the faded paperbacks on Suwarrow today look as if Tom Neale himself might have thumbed through them back in the 1950’s.

After all, sailors do not abandon their cherished copies of Joshua Slocum or Robin Lee Graham to the merciless pits of book swaps; they ditch the forgettable flotsam and jetsam of the literary world. But among the outdated cruising guides and marine supply catalogs (all from the Caribbean, 6000 miles away), behind the incongruous form of a coffee table book on the Louvre, a few masterpieces lay secreted away. Of course, there’s a catch: the worthwhile reads are usually in a rather obscure foreign language, such as Ernest Hemingway’s classic Hvem ringer klokkerne for (For Whom the Bell Tolls - in Danish), or Ian Fleming’s Dutch bestseller, In Dienst van Hare Majesteit (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service).

The jettisoned English-language titles, on the other hand, run the gamut from outrageously unbelievable spy novels (“a final showdown with an enemy more sinister and deadly than has ever been seen before”), John Grisham bestsellers (“Just released!” – in 1997), and gushing romance novels (“Now she must flee – and seek refuge in the arms of a virile and dangerous stranger”). It’s like visiting a public library stocked not by a prim, conservative professional, but by a hairdresser’s miniature poodle. I found myself intently studying the jackets of trashy novels, wavering between the virile stranger and the ruggedly handsome super agent. Finally I spotted an Agatha Christie mystery in a foreign language I do read. Salvation! But two weeks in a small atoll leaves plenty of down time, and I eventually succumbed to temptation in the form of the studly super agent. Oh, the shame! The only thing saving my scarred dignity was the fact that I hadn’t actually paid for these books.

So just why was I reading this junk? I couldn’t help myself! There’s something about the element of surprise, like visiting a new restaurant with a seductive menu full of exotic flavors. No matter how many titles fill the screen of my Kindle, I still covet the moldy paperbacks of these deliciously unpredictable book swaps. And who knows? I might discover a priceless jewel, like Suwarrow itself, with its reef walks, superb diving, and groovy fish net hammocks. The irresistible pleasure of perusing book shelves is like beach combing on a tropical island: you never know just what treasures the tide will wash in.

Originally published by Nadine Slavinski as an article in Cruising World Magazine, January 2014.