Now that some of us are planning to travel again, however tentatively, it’s time to consider the delicious question of vacation reading. Everyone has their own idea of what it should look like. Mine was formed at the end of a holiday weekend in middle school in the 1970s, when my friend Michelle and I pretzeled ourselves into her parents’ station wagon for the long, dull ride to New York from Massachusetts.
The end of a vacation is an occasion for sadness. There were no cellphones to amuse us back then, and the darkness prevented us from flirting with cute boys in other cars. We were beset by ennui in the way of the sisters in Nancy Mitford’s “Pursuit of Love,” endlessly speculating about what time it was. What saved us was the single book Michelle produced from her bag, in a hail-Mary literary move: “The Silver Crown,” by Robert C. O’Brien.
Reading that book in that car at that time transformed one of the worst parts of traveling — the actual traveling — into an interlude of delight. “The Silver Crown” is the story of a girl who receives a shimmery crown on her 10th birthday and is then pursued by mysterious figures with nefarious intent. It thrilled and unsettled us. We took turns reading by flashlight — Michelle read a chapter, and then I did, passing the book back and forth as we sprawled out in the interstices between the luggage and the bags of groceries in our little no-seatbelt fort in the very back of the car.
I can’t remember what we did the rest of the weekend, but it was the best car trip I’ve ever taken, and it forever cemented in me the idea that a vacation book doesn’t need to have anything to do with where you are; it can be a destination in itself. By taking you out of your head in those in-between moments — waiting at the gate to board the plane, riding in the back of the bus between cities, lying in bed during the first night of jet-lagged insomnia in a faraway country — it can restore you to yourself. It cures your boredom, soothes your anxiety and provides stability and constancy.
Not everyone thinks of a book as a security blanket. My husband feels that his vacation reading — ideally done while stretched out on a chaise by a gentle body of water — is the only time he can really sink into a book without guilt. Other travelers like to match the material to the trip. I applaud them, and if I were less haphazard, I would do it, too. What better way to enhance your trip to Morocco than by seeing it through the experienced eyes of Paul Bowles, and what better opportunity to understand the origins of modern Italy than by reading Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard”?
Anyone thinking of hiking in the wilds of Western Australia — or any woman wanting to make the trip by herself — would only be inspired by first reading Robyn Davidson’s “Tracks,” about her epic excursion from Alice Springs to the coast, accompanied by a dog and four camels. Traveling to London after reading Dickens is great fun, not just for his writing but for his geography. (How thrilling to walk the real Chancery Lane after reading it so memorably portrayed in “Bleak House.”)
Then there is travel writing itself. The works of classic travel writers, people like Jan Morris, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Paul Theroux, Rebecca West and Herodotus, take readers on two trips at once. One is the physical and intellectual trip, of course, the journey through Poland or Greece or Venice, and through the history of those places.
The second is the emotional trip. “The best travel writers are not really writing about travel at all,” Morris observed. “They are recording the effects of places or movements upon their own particular temperaments — recording the experience rather than the event, as they might make literary use of a love affair, an enigma or a tragedy.”
Morris distinguished between “the treacherous creative quagmire called fiction” and the heightened realism of travel writing, “the alliance of knowledge and sensation, nature and intellect, sight and interpretation, instinct and logic.” This is a way of saying that the best travel writers do what the best narrative nonfiction writers do: They make things better by the way they describe them. (This is a good technique for anyone who is not at home. When I visit London and find myself at a fancy dinner party full of intellectually intimidating mansplainers, for instance, I relax by imagining I’m in the middle of a Jane Austen novel.)
What books do you read on your trips? I generally choose mine in the manner of a bride organizing her “something old, something new” accessories. So: one contemporary book that I’ve been saving as a reward — this summer, it might be Jennifer Egan’s “The Candy House”; one book that I’ve been meaning to read but have not yet gotten to — perhaps Shirley Hazzard’s “Transit of Venus.”
Also: One absorbing thriller. And then one comforting old friend, often a children’s book like “Charlotte’s Web” or “The Golden Compass.” And I’ll take my Kindle, which is no fun as a literary delivery mechanism, but which has the benefit of putting the world’s library at your fingertips.
If you do it right, you will get off the plane so enamored of your book that you’ll want to keep reading in the customs line, and then continue while waiting for your luggage, and then in the hotel later to help you calm down before going to sleep.
And this brings me back to my second-favorite reading-and-traveling memory, after my youthful car trip. It was June of 1985, and I had just graduated from college. I had no job and as yet no prospect of one, and I didn’t feel great as I prepared to embark on what was meant to be (and would finally be) a transformative Eurail adventure through Europe.
I had booked a cheap seat on a full overnight flight to Paris, and was too anxious and excited to sleep. It didn’t really matter that the book I’d brought, “The Paradine Case,” Robert Hichens’s overwrought 1933 legal thriller about an upstanding, married London barrister who falls in love with a client — a woman accused of poisoning her husband — is not, by most objective standards, a great work of literature. It is a great story. (Hitchcock later made it into a movie, starring Gregory Peck.)
I was hooked from the opening line: “Sir Malcolm Keane, K.C., put on his fur-lined coat in the cloakroom of the Cleveland Club at the corner of Pall Mall, picked up his soft black hat, doeskin gloves and closely furled umbrella, and came out into the big square hall where a huge fire was burning on the wide hearth.” It was full of pointillistic description and high drama and intense emotion, perfect for my febrile mood. As I arrived the next morning, still reading, with Talking Heads’s “And She Was” cranked up on my Walkman, I was exhausted and thrilled. The perfect way to embark on a vacation into the unknown.