Read anything good on vacation?
We haven’t even decided where we’re going this year—Grand Tetons? Hawaii? Yosemite? Stinson Beach?—and already I’m answering the question.
You see, as soon as I start thinking about where, I start considering what books to bring. I go away for a weekend and I bring a bag full of novels and a few months’ backlog of New Yorkers. It’s not just a question of overestimating my time; it’s a question of what I’ll be in the mood for. An Adam Gopnik essay? A Donna Leon mystery? Time to read up on the situation in Syria, I might think—but on vacation? A friend recommends a book on menopause–but on vacation? Give me a movie review. I like to keep myself open to serendipity, to what I may find on the bookshelves in the rental’s living room or hotel lobby. Even a transcontinental flight triggers a similar quandary: How can I know what I’ll be in the mood for if I’m not there yet? Better bring along some options. I’ll be in the air five hours, after all.
Often, remembering trips in the past, I think of what I was reading. Mention Maui, and I think of Jane Eyre and Danielle Steel, an unlikely combo but I was fifteen at the time. Grand Canyon: The Professor and the Madman. Lake Tahoe: Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The Big Island: Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room. (I was seventeen and trying hard to be mature.) Rome: Homer’s Odyssey. Sea Ranch: discovering Ruth Rendell.
In other words, I associate places with what I was reading there, and vice-versa. So that the thought of certain books takes me not only to the general location but the specific contours of the comfy chair in which I sat, the scratch of sand between my toes, the wind rustling the palm trees, the fountain in the courtyard of the convent where I stayed for 15,000 lira a night. (For some reason I’ve never been able to piece together, The Exorcist recalls, vividly, the handball wall at the tennis club against which my friend Sallie and I practiced our backhand circa 1974.)
Once I’m carried to that level of specificity, I can practically see the type on the page.
We haven’t made a decision, or honed in on a time zone. We’re still searching the web, scrutinizing photos on VRBO, researching flight prices. The options are staggering, the offerings plentiful. But there’s one thing I look for, in every photo—and thank god for the photos: Where would I read? Give me a windowseat or an Adirondack chair, the right slant of light and a place for my feet, and I’m halfway toward tapping in my VISA number. The beach: I love the beach, but ever since I left my twenties, I’ve gotten fussy about needing something to sit on. Flat on a towel on the sand doesn’t cut it any more; I need a reclining chaise longue, and preferably an umbrella. I don’t care how gorgeous the view of the mountains is: if those chairs (or, god forbid, picnic table) look stiff and uncomfortable, I move on. Then, of course, there’s the question of the bedside lamp.
Never mind the fact that once we’re there, we may spend time hiking or bicycling, canoeing or walking. Or sleeping. How many times have I folded up my tray table, picked up my novel (or New Yorker), and tuned into the movie? Of course we’ll get a lot of reading done, wherever we go; we’re readers. But sometimes, the appeal is in the imagining.
What books do you forever associate with the place you read it? What vacations stay in your mind largely for the reading you did?