Five Best Books About Life on the Road

From a Wall Street Journal story by Jeff Tweedy headlined “Five Best: Books About Life on the Road”:

An Immense World
By Ed Yong (2022)

1. As a kid I had a beloved teddy bear we kept in a glass jar (due to a dust allergy and possibly the universe’s eagerness to introduce me to the joys of metaphor), so I’m no stranger to anthropomorphization. We’re predisposed to think that other beings—human and nonhumans alike—are looking out with a perspective close to our own. Not so. It turns out that the sensory perceptions of other animals are often wildly different from our own.

For example, we learn in Ed Yong’s “An Immense World” that the mantis shrimp possesses four times as many color receptors as humans, yet ecologists think they only perceive 12 colors. Go figure. The point is: We barely understand the tiniest sliver of what it’s like to be in someone or something else’s, let’s say, shoes. We can understand a bit more if we try really hard and break out the scientific equipment. But it will always be important to remember that the majority of another being’s experience is theirs and theirs alone.

Travels With Charley

By John Steinbeck (1962)

2. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life traveling across the U.S. in tour buses. John Steinbeck’s account of driving from New York to California and back again with his dog Charley has given me a sense of kinship while on the road. It’s nice, even when you’re traveling with people you love, to be reminded that others have been exploring and drawing lessons from this land for centuries. Steinbeck makes it both timely and timeless, with lines like, “once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness.

A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the glass bum relax and go along with it.”

The Philosophy of Modern Song

By Bob Dylan (2022)

3. The only thing I love as much as Bob Dylan’s music is Bob Dylan’s love of other people’s music. Whether it’s his “Theme Time Radio Hour” that aired from 2006 to 2009, or “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” I always feel like I have a lot to gain from learning what he thinks about songs. Even when he’s being inscrutable, which—let’s face it—happens a lot in this book. “Today, the medium contains multitudes and man needs only pick one thing he likes and feast exclusively on a stream dedicated to it. There’s twenty-four hours of blues, surf music, left-wing whining, right-wing badgering, any stripe of belief imaginable.

There are stories as interesting as lemming suicides and totally true, like the fact that whale songs have inexplicably lowered in pitch 30 percent since the sixties. But these stories are buried on animal documentary channels, where they will probably never capture the general public’s imagination.” That’s definitely a heaping helping of “wait, what?” But reading Mr. Dylan’s words is always worth the travail. After all, getting lost in something may be the only point he’s ever really tried to make.

By Alfred Mark Lansing (1959)

4. One time while my band Wilco was on tour in Europe, roughly half of our entire entourage was laid low by some horrifying truck-stop-begotten foodborne illness. On a 20-hour bus ride. In the middle of the night. It was pure carnage. There were people crawling on the bus floor, getting sick in their bunks, and worse. It was like a Bosch painting except you could hear it and smell it.

And as the bus moaned and wailed through the pitch-black French countryside and I cowered in my bunk, as yet unafflicted, I thought about this book, which chronicles Ernest Shackleton’s attempted and ultimately disastrous journey to the South Pole beginning in 1914. Remembering the deprivations and hopelessness of Shackleton and his crew’s experience, locked in ice for more than 13 months, gave me comfort. Somehow, the entire group survived. Oh, and Shackleton made it home, too.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

By Annie Dillard (1974)

5. More than any other book I’ve ever read, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” helps me understand how to pay attention, which I think is maybe the most important skill or muscle I have as an artist and a human. Annie Dillard’s story is set in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, where she spent all of a year exploring the natural world around her. She turns the comings and goings of ants and beetles into riveting poetry. Or, I guess I should say, she reveals the riveting poetry of ants and beetles.

It’s really both—the beauty in “Tinker Creek” is the collaboration between Ms. Dillard and our world through the creatures and landscapes she encountered that year. When I hike—but also every day, in any context—I aspire to her level of interest in and care for her surroundings, both inanimate and living.

Selected by Jeff Tweedy, the author of ‘World Within a Song.’

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