What were you reading when you arrived in-country?

I spotted a small item in the October 24, 2011, issue of The New Yorker entitled, “Thalia Book Club.” It was about a panel discussion taking place at the wonderful Symphony Space on the Upper West Side of Manhattan focus on Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The novel was first published fifty years ago this year.

Lesley Stahl was the moderator of the panel that included Robert Gottlieb, who edited the novel; writer Christopher Buckley; Mike Nichols, the director of the 1970 film based on the book; and the actor Scott Shepherd who read an excerpt for the book.  

I knew Heller (very slightly) as we use to work out at the same West Side YMCA back in the Seventies. And I was also close friends of a close friend of his when I lived on the island of Menorca. My friend, who was a writer, would tell me great stories about Heller.

But spotting this panel announcement what I recalled immediately was seeing the thick paperback edition of this book in the  fall of 1962 when I was one of some 300 PCVs on our flight to Ethiopia. It seemed that on that TWA plane across the Atlantic half of the Volunteers were reading Catch-22. (And if they weren’t reading Heller, they were into one of Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet novels).

So that got me thinking: what were you reading when you arrived in-country?  Now I have asked this question several years ago on my blogs, but I’d like to see if we can get an update from new RPCVs. Share with us the names of the books you were reading and remember from that trip overseas to start your Peace Corps Training. Thanks.


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  • I had a collection of Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat series…my roomie at the hotel in the capital before we were placed with families for PST swiped it and read it that first week.

    More interesting to me, though…are the books I read during service that I had avoided reading throughout my education…The Grapes of Wrath, Moby Dick….and the others I was inclined to read as a result of my placement War and Peace, everything by Gogol, Kafka’s The Castle….

  • If you enjoyed Walden Pond, you’ll love “Bush Alaska” included in Years On and Other Essays. It begins, “My Walden was no walk from civilization.”

  • Shortly after I reached my duty station, an isolated atoll in the middle of the Pacific, the other volunteer already there turned me on to Vonnegut. I had avoided him because everybody else had been reading him and I didn’t like to jump into fads. But with lots of time that could be devoted to reading I decided to give him a try. The only Vonnegut book on the island was “Mother Night”. I was instantly a Vonnegut fan. Then, to add to that discovery, my fellow volunteer slipped me a copy of Robbins’ “Another Roadside Attraction.” I have, since that time, read most if not all of both writers’ works.

  • I bought the biggest version of Arabian Nights I could find, thinking it would last me a while…I think I finished it the second week of training.

  • John

    I was one of the 300. Two comments. First we were not all on one plane, there were two. I was with the crowd reading the Alexandria Quartet which fanned my early desire to live in the Mediterranean.

  • I couldn’t help half-snickering, smiling and happily remembering the pleasure of reading Catch 22 at exactly the same time, AND the Alexandria Quartet. In addition, while serving in Nigeria I read Dickens (Great Expectations, David Copperfield) , Graham Greene and, required reading at the time: The Autobiography of Malcom X. Forty-five years later, I’m about to dive into Marable’s Biography of Malcolm X. What else was in that trunk? I wish I could remember more. Nathalie

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