I love to travel, and I love to travel inexpensively, so I have, as a result, spent my fair share of time in hostels. I've never minded this — hostels build community and provide a place for you to meet fascinating people from all over the world. You share meals and travel recommendations and and stories. I've stayed in hostels in Asia, in Europe, and here in the United States, and each had its own vibe. But there's one thing every hostel has, in my experience: a library.
Hostel libraries come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes, the bookshelves line an entire wall or room, and other times, the hostel may just keep a small shelf of books in circulations for guests. Most operate as a book exchange — you take a book, you leave a book. And of course, it’s all free.
It's a simple enough idea, but one that brims with magic. Strangers from different places and cultures are sharing art with each other — art they've journeyed with and (presumably) loved. Some of these books have traveled around the world. Some of these books have traveled to place you've never been. Some of these books have been picked up in other hostels, where they'd been left by other travelers. Some of these books have seen more of the world than you have.
When you walk into a bookstore or a library, you probably have an idea of what you want. Or, if you don't know what you want, you at least have plenty of options. But hostel libraries are often unorganized. Every book is there by chance. You can't plan and you can't be picky. You simply take what catches your eye. You give yourself over to the power of the hostel library, and you let yourself be surprised. As readers, how often do we truly get to experience that?
That's exactly how I ended up reading an Annie Proulx book I had never heard of on a trip to Osaka. From a bed in Japan, I found myself transported to the wilds of Wyoming. On that same trip, I spent an afternoon in Hiroshima absorbed in a picture book about atomic bombs that I had picked up on that same library shelf. That book changed my perspective on the trip entirely, and gave me a new framework for understanding of the history and tragedy of the city I was visiting.
Books are an important part of travel. When I travel solo, books become my companions and my confidants. They accompany me on fancy meals and on long hikes. It’s true that travel can be invigorating and life-changing, but it can also be daunting and overwhelming. When it all feels like too much, I like to retreat to my bunk and disappear into the world of my book. Books are my comfort in a place where everything is foreign, and hostel libraries ensure that that feeling of safety is always available to me. And what’s truly remarkable is that even within that act of comfort and care, hostel libraries can still open you to new doors and experiences. How magical is that?