Summer is here and, with it, the prospect of vacation. People are already packing: passports, bathing suits, cameras . . . and books. Not many leave without at least one paperback stuffed into their bags, if only out of a vague sense that books are to August as rain is to July — a defining element. Some lug along entire mini-libraries and consider it a point of honor to finish the lot before heading home.
There are two main theories about summer reading, just as there are two main theories about the purpose of vacations. Some people hold that the point of a holiday is to relax, i.e. do nothing. These are the folks you find sitting decoratively around the pool or hot spring or on the beach, alternately snoozing, reading and sipping more gaudy drinks than are good for them. Mental rejuvenation, according to this view, requires switching off, kicking back and giving the synapses a thorough rest.
Others concur on the goal — relaxation — but maintain that the way to achieve it is to get blissfully, physically exhausted. These people don’t sit or lie on the beach; they run on it. They don’t take ocean cruises; they surf and jet-ski and snorkel. They ride horses and play golf and climb mountains and take aerobics classes. They sight-see, avidly, inquiring endlessly about the history, geography, customs, flora and fauna of their holiday destinations. A vacation to them is part workout, part social-studies class. At the end of the day, one would think, they are too tired to read anything but the dinner menu, but being the driven types they are, they squeeze it in somehow.
There are actually two more groups — people who go on vacation only because forced to by their spouses, and people who go with small children — but they don’t count. The former defiantly read nothing on the beach but professional journals or dreary tomes on politics or economics, and the latter won’t get to read a book without pictures or large type for years. Most vacationers can be categorized as one or other of the two major varieties of Homo ludens — let’s call them the drones and the workers — and look for different qualities in their summer reading lists accordingly.
Pulp fiction — soft, juicy and seedless — was practically invented for the drones, although if retail statistics are to be believed, they find room in their totes for cookbooks, sports biographies and spiritual self-help too. (It is all right to read about other people doing things, especially strenuous or improving things, as long as one observes the iron rule of doing nothing oneself.) The best-seller lists are their guide and salvation: Not only can they avoid heavy-duty thinking when reading the latest Tom Clancy or Jeffrey Archer or Banana Yoshimoto, they won’t even have to think when choosing them. These readers tend to be a happy, unpretentious group. And occasionally, since the gods are just, they are rewarded for their low-stress approach with the appearance of a literary gem among the pap, like Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain,” say, or “The Poisonwood Bible,” by Barbara Kingsolver, to name just two from recent years.
The workers, on the other hand, pride themselves on their originality, crafting reading lists to match their destinations (which have often already been chosen for their exotic, off-the-beaten-track qualities). They go swanning off to Lhasa with Heinrich Harrer’s “Seven Years in Tibet,” in the original German, or to Gettysburg with Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels” or to Italy with the dark Aurelio Zen detective novels by Michael Dibdin. They read Salman Rushdie in Bombay and Agatha Christie on the Orient Express. They don’t go to Bali or Baluchistan at all, because they can’t think of anything to read there except the Lonely Planet guide. We have mixed feelings about this approach. On the one hand, it tends to breed, or accompany, intellectual one-upmanship and travel snobbery of the worst kind. On the other hand, when practiced discreetly, there is much to be said for it. It is fun and imaginative and sheds light on new places it would be hard to get any other way — although the game obviously lends itself to movies as well as books.
So, what do we recommend? Nothing. People will read — and return from vacation either refreshed or enlightened — as their type dictates. Go; enjoy yourselves; read nothing but Lonely Planet if you like. As for us, we are taking along a book of poetry, the ultimate in escapist reading. As Keats put it, “Away! Away! for I will fly to thee,/ Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,/ But on the viewless wings of Poesy . . .” Well said, although we do have two questions for Keats: What’s wrong with a little Bacchus when you’re flying away? And: What’s a pard, anyway?
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