What will you become as a result of your holiday reading?Feb 01, 2022
It’s summer. Covid-19 is in retreat. Restrictions are lifting. Finally, after months of uncertainty, it is time to get in the holiday mood. Which raises the annual conundrum of what reading to take with you. Partly because for many people, reading is the very point of going on holiday. It certainly is for me. I have thousands of books I have yet to read, having filled my house after reading in Freakonomics the book count in a house determines children’s educational attainment. Without holidays, I couldn’t dig into the back catalogue and create room for the books to come.
The more you consider it, the greater the holiday reading stakes are. Not to have an answer to the inevitable ‘what did you read?’ inquisition that awaits you on your return - you should always say ‘Jilly Cooper’. But because reading is key to resolving the problem that Alain de Botton identified with holidays generally, namely they are spoilt by the fact that we take ourselves on them. Only halfway through do we recover our true selves, by which time you start to worry if you really did cancel the papers. Reading accelerates the process of holiday-fication, helping us to escape our everyday preoccupations and get into the right mindset.
Reading on holiday is also the only time of the year we have the time and space to explore something new and profound. As Derek Walcott said: I read; I travel; I become. No pressure! There really is something to this. The act of travelling is one of the most liberating and powerful stimuli we have. If you are not convinced, travel more or read Michael Chrichton’s Travels. He started as a medic and gave it up to write novels and screenplays. With every success, he decided to travel somewhere different for a stimulating experience. His travelogue is a journey of self-discovery that fuelled his professional development.
Few great inventions and ideas are traced back to the beach or pool side, but this is where the foundations are laid. It is where your mental landscape has the opportunity to be sculptured outside of the strict geological pressures of work. Here are a few tips to take the pressure off...
Firstly, don’t leave it to the airport. By all means browse in them to kill some time, but don’t place yourself at the mercy of the bestseller lists. There are millions of interesting books in the world, and hardly any of them were published in the last 12 months. Plan ahead. Put ‘amazon order’ in your diary for one week before you leave.
Secondly, abandon all plans to read any business books. Business books are designed to be read on the way to and from work. They are like candy floss. Invitingly fluffy, sweet to taste at first, but soon sickly and insubstantial, likely to melt in the heat and dissolve away to a small core after a few days. Business books are limiting. You’ll learn much more about running a business by reading Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect, than you would any management manual. And business books also fail the de Botton test: they make it harder to escape your everyday self.
Thirdly, take some books you are guaranteed to enjoy. It doesn’t matter what these are. The trashier and more populist the better. Even Dan Brown can be a lifesaving poultice for a fevered mind drained by work. You will need these old friends to recover over the first few days. I’ll be taking a couple of Andrea Camilleri’s superlative Montalbano mysteries.
Fourthly, and this is the big one, read something that is interesting and/or different to what you would usually read, and/or challenging. Hitting all three is the holiday jackpot. How can we become something else, if we don’t venture into a mysterious new world that forces us to consider who we are? This is not to say the reading needs to be heavy, worthy, didactic or all encompassing. There will still be room for Jilly Cooper. Just make sure you have one or two such tomes in there.
Looking back, most of my favourite holidays are associated with a signal reading experience. My first visit to Italy was enriched by spending it in the company of Paul Ormerod’s Why Things Fail, which offered insights into economics, biology, sociology and game theory. He is like a more academic Tim Harford, and he offers a brilliant analysis of how networks function in Network Linking. I loved learning to dive in Egypt, but what I remember most vividly is discovering a portal into the world of books about biographers and biographies of books, through Adam Sisman’s Boswell’s Presumptuous Task. I must have read at least thirty from this genre since then, the best being Dorien Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth. I loved swimming with baby sharks in the Maldives, but the shiver I remember, is physically shaking while reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, his eyewitness account of the 1996 Everest climbing disaster. What heroism and tragedy, what ingenuity and incompetence, what searing honesty. The larger cast made it more intriguing than Touching the Void. At some point, I’ll climb Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind.
What am I taking this year? That’s tricky, as I have already read the book I set aside initially, Robert Tombs’ This Sovereign Isle. As someone who voted remain, I wanted to understand the rational case for Brexit, and this book makes it brilliantly. It is not completely convincing, with a few strategic blind spots, but he lands his most telling blow: that the case for remain is just as emotional (perhaps even more so) than that for Brexit. Clearly I liked the idea of Europe rather than the reality of it. Compact at 200 pages, it is the perfect holiday book! Three others that have secured their place are: Edmund de Waal, The Hare with the Amber Eyes, Tim Moore, Frost On My Moustache, and Ben Blatt, Nabokov’s Favourite Word Is Mauve. Vying for a whatever room is left are books on the psychanalysis of fairy tales, monsterology, a biography of Bayes theory, and David Omand’s How Spies Think (although this probably won’t make it as the iconic cover art would be ruined by sun tan lotion). What makes it will depend on what I most interested in and know the least about at the moment of packing. This is yet another of the joys of holiday reading – suspense.
If you don’t fancy the additional pressure, buy a kindle, so you can take them all with you.
What will you become this summer? Do let us know…
UP AND TO THE RIGHT.