Our Reading Lives

Book People Problems: Vacation Reading

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Sarah McCarry

Staff Writer

Sarah McCarry is the author of the novels All Our Pretty Songs and Dirty Wings and the editor and publisher of the chapbook series Guillotine.

I am presently (to my great delight) on vacation, and the Problem of Vacation Reading is on my mind, largely because the person with whom I am vacationing has just made the temerarious suggestion that it is slightly unusual to have accumulated a pile of no fewer than sixteen books (I left New York with six, and then discarded a few of those, and then bought some more at three or four different places, as one does) for a trip of two weeks, and that my assertion that I need them all because some of them might not be the right ones is possibly somewhat unusual as well.

But the inveterate reader, I am certain, will empathize with my dilemma. There’s something about going on vacation that instantly flips a switch in my brain from Willing To Work Very Hard to Nope Just Gonna Peace Out, Thanks. For a long time I attempted great ambitions with my sojourns—at last! I told myself, I shall read all of The Three Musketeers en français—and without fail the 400-page entirety of Les Trois Mousquetaires would remain in my suitcase, and immediately upon landing I would buy something else in the airport bookstore. (I brought Les Trois Mousquetaires on vacation for several years without opening it before finally giving up; it is still on my bookshelf somewhere, wholly unread.)

More recently I’ve been willing to admit that lofty intellectual goals—for me, anyway—have no place mixing with relaxation, but vacation-reading planning is a stressful process nonetheless, as it is rather a lot harder than one might think to find exactly the right book that will not make one think too hard. This problem is complicated for me by the fact that I am cursed with a freakish ability to read an entire novel in a matter of hours, along with a conviction, familiar to many obsessive readers, that the absolute worst problem imaginable is to be stuck somewhere without a book—or, even more awful, with the wrong book. Normal people solve this problem with ereaders but, you know. I have earned my peccadilloes, and an inexplicable refusal to embrace ebooks is among them.

Luckily, although I am quite vain on my home turf, whilst traveling about I am quite content to wear the same clothes for days on end and bring very little with me, which means it is not a problem to stuff up half my luggage with paperbacks—many of which I’ll discard as unsuitable en route, to be replaced with other paperbacks picked up elsewhere. Used bookstores are best, obviously, but if you cannot get one of those I am a committed prowler of Goodwill bookshelves. There is literally no Goodwill on this earth I have ever been in that does not have at least one Sue Grafton mystery for the desperate traveler. My great dream is to find something exactly like The Secret History, which is for me the holy grail of Really Sort Of Trashy But Deeply Satisfying and Also Doesn’t Make You Feel Undignified While Reading It; but while many people have tried to write the book that is exactly like The Secret History without actually being The Secret History, none of them, in my mind, have achieved it, and so instead I most often turn to mysteries to sustain me. I just finished a most pleasing V.I. Warshawski novel—it is nice to happen upon a robust series that one enjoys, as this takes some of the risk out of one’s book commitments—and now I’m reading a Guy Gavriel Kay that I had not seen before, and I have some popular science books in my pile, too, although those might be too brainy. We’ll see.

What about you? Do you read differently on vacation than you do at home? What are your favorite pleasure reads? There’s a bookstore around here somewhere—I’m taking recommendations.