After finding this glorious postcard in a charity shop, I realised it was time to set about one of my favourite pastimes: deciding on my holiday reading, a task fraught with risks and encumbered with rules.
The first point I need to stress is that I am talking about yer actual books here, not electronic gizmos. I don’t posses a Kindle and don’t intend to – although I do admit it would make life easier when it comes to holiday reading.
Obviously, the first consideration is not to take more than you need (especially if going abroad – lugging Simon Raven’s Alms for Oblivion sequence on a plane is hardly an option!), but make sure you have enough to last the whole holiday (also true if going anywhere remote or abroad where you can’t read the lingo). This is always tricky, and something which depends on what type of holiday you’re going on. Is it is beach holiday with lots of time to read? If so, are you sure that you’ll actually be able to do as much reading as you think? I find reading in the sun almost impossible and the comings and goings of the beach too intriguing to ignore. If it’s a city break then will you have time between all those visits planned, with streets to explore, shopping to be done…?
In the past the following calculation has always worked for me: beach holidays = two and a half times my usual reading rate; city breaks = half my usual reading rate. Which roughly equates to two average length books a week for a beach holiday and 1 for a city break (which, for me, are rarely more than three or four days anyway). Of course, this can be precarious, especially if your choice hits gold. Last year, a week in Majorca was accompanied by Barbara Comyns’ ‘The Vets Daughter’ and ‘Our Spoons came from Woolworths’, recommended by a friend and quite, quite wonderful. So wonderful, in fact, that I raced through them in 4 days and had to steal a copy of some crime short stories to keep me going. Alternatively when I took three books for a fortnight in the sun, I chose one sizeable volume – Hanya Yanagihara’s fantastic ‘The People in the Trees’ and two slim: Barbara Comyns’ ‘Who was changed and who was dead‘ and Margaret Drabble’s ‘A Summer Birdcage’. After week one I had raced through the first two books and began to worry that I’d run out. However, I found Drabble’s novel so rotten (which shocked me – I always thought I liked Drabble, but time hasn’t been kind) that it took me till almost the end of the holiday to finish it. I was very proud of my perseverance though – never one of my more obvious traits!
Also, consider how you will read your books: When I’m on holiday I tend to read in short spurts: picking up and putting down in between swims or when I’ve managed to get under a shady tree or the gin and tonic has just been poured. Given this, I sometimes think that short story collections are the way forward. Two favourites for me are Shena Mackays’ ‘The Atmospheric Railway: new and collected stories’ and ‘The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield’. Mansfield’s ‘At the Bay’ is particularly resonant reading on a beach holiday. You can pick up nice copies of Collected Mansfield very cheaply – I got a lovely 1950s Constable hardback for £4 only last year. If not short stories then short to medium length novels are best. While I do like the occasional doorstop (I’m looking at you, ‘Middlemarch’), I find that my concentration just doesn’t stretch on holiday. Maybe I just have the wrong type of holiday – holed up in a cosy cottage or caravan for a week might be the cure for that particular problem.
This brings me to a most important point, for me, about holiday reading: What state do your books get into when on holiday? At home I am almost OCD about books: no creases, tears, folds or twisted spines for me, but on holiday this becomes very difficult to maintain: just consider the terrors awaiting you on the beach: water, greasy suncream, sand, not to mention the calamities which can result from holding the book in one hand while the other shades your eyes. Consider the disfigurements which can occur when you slip into a happy slumber, your book falling to the ground, twisting, tearing or folding on the way down. Oh – the horror! My solution? Buy copies of the books you want cheaply from charity shops (ideally) or from bookshop sales, ebay or secondhand bookshops. The beauty here is that you’re not bothered about the condition, and tatty comes cheap! (Mind you, if you’re looking for a Jackie Collins bonkbuster to read as a tribute to the sadly deceased writer, don’t try Oxfam bookshops – maybe it’s just the ones I visit, but they do seem to turn their noses up at such popular fare)
This may also mean that you can’t take the latest books with you but I sometimes think that holidays are a great time to catch up on all those books you meant to read but didn’t. For example, one book which I’ve recommended numerous times (and all to great reviews) is ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ by John Kennedy Toole: a laugh-out-loud book most people have heard of but few seem to have read. For me, this year I’d like to catch up on the novels of the late, great Tony Warren – the creator of Coronation Street. His ‘Behind Closed Doors’ was wonderful when I read it a few years ago, and there are a few more still out there: ‘Full Steam Ahead’, ‘Foot of the Rainbow’ and ‘The Lights of Manchester’. What better way to pay tribute to the genius who changed British television forever? My only problem is that the copies I have are lovely signed first editions…
So, what have I decided on this June’s jaunt? Well, the only definite at the moment is Barbara Comyns’ ‘A Touch of Mistletoe’. Tony Warren (if I can find a cheap copy) is also in the running. As are Gordon Burn’s ‘Happy Like Murderers’ – his grim excavation of the Fred and Rosemary West story – and John Fowles’ ‘The Magus’ – a tale of madness in Greece – both of which seem guaranteed to bring a certain frisson to the Majorcan sunshine.
What about your holiday reads – do you find it a minefield? Any great recommendations or or perhaps an old favourite to share?