Buried in a book?

It is that time of year when the literary supplements start recommending ‘best holiday reads’. I am, I have to admit, faintly mystified by the concept of a ‘best’ holiday read as I tend to take two or three of the bulkier titles on the ‘to-be-read’ pile, irrespective of what they are and in anticipation of also picking up a few more books in my travels. As an approach, this occasionally backfires so I have learned to leave the densest theoretical texts behind unless I’m travelling on my own and anticipate a good period of time in one coffee shop or another.

However, I don’t deal in ‘holiday reading’ as a separate and specific category; and anyway, the ‘holiday reading’ features tend to get up my nose because they are invariably composed of writers and critics either being stunningly pretentious about what they’re taking to the beach or else boasting that they’ve got an advance reading copy of some highly desirable text that I, mere mortal book-buying member of the public that I am, won’t be able to get my hands on for months yet. (I used to be impressed by this but now I have a better understanding of the availability of ARCs, and the reasons for their distribution, I’m more inclined to dismiss the commentators involved as merely annoying.)

This year, the Guardian Review’s editor has divined that irritating one’s readers like this on an annual basis is maybe not the best way forward and has opted for a slightly different approach. The same selection of the literary great, good and currently hot has been invited to opine, but this time they have been asked for their most memorable holiday read (in the print version at least, which is entitled ‘Buried in a Book’; online, as you’ll see, the emphasis remains on ‘The Best Holiday Reads’. Whether this difference is significant, I’m not sure).

On the plus side, there is a greater variety of titles offered, not to mention a stronger sense of genuine personal taste and interest. On the down side, there is still a certain amount of pretension, possibly the best example being Hari Kunzru’s account of taking himself and all six volumes of the Terence Kilmartin translation of Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu off to Chiapas and the Yucatán. I understand perfectly why he did it, especially as he was travelling alone and there is always more spare time than you might suppose for reading (see my comments above about theory texts). It’s more that his description sounds so much like the perfect holiday-reading cliché that were it me I think I would hesitate to broadcast the fact I loaded my rucksack down with six volumes of Proust (and I’m hoping it was the paperback edition) while I was in the Yucatán. (And the line about the hammock, the snake and the sand really doesn’t help win my sympathy.)

Having said that, Kunzru’s account is only the most extreme expression of something that permeates the entire article. It’s not so much about books read as the conditions in which the books were read, prompting a particular kind of intense concentration. In most, though not all, of the stories, the author is quite young; invariably, they are on the brink of a shift in life’s gears or else in a situation far removed from their ordinary lives. Time seems to be standing still, for one reason or another, and a huge space has opened up in which to read, as a result of which the encounter with the text is transformed in some way. Time and again, people are genuinely lost in a book.

And dammit, I envy them. I just can’t read like that at the moment. Every encounter with a book, for whatever reason, is like teetering on the brink and mostly falling out of rather than into it. I’d like to be young again and have an infinitely long summer holiday ahead of me.

I do have memorable holiday reads, as it happens, so I’ll share a couple, both guaranteed to be snake-, Proust- and, I hope, pretension-free.

One that springs to mind occurred during my first trip to the US, while I was in San Francisco. My friend, Tom Becker, decided (quite rightly) that I needed to be introduced to the writing of John McPhee, and in the course of telling me about him mentioned the collection of his geological writings, Annals of the Former World. As it happened, I fetched up in the City Lights Bookstore next morning and, as it happened, there was a copy of Annals of the Former World. It was quite a big hardback, I discovered, but nothing ventured… I bought it and became more or less permanently attached to it, it was so fascinating. It went everywhere with me for the next few weeks – luckily, I carried a fairly large satchel-bag in those days.

Visiting some museum or other in NYC, I had my bag searched and the guard looked at the book, looked at me, looked at the book again … ‘you like to read, then?’ he said. ‘Yeah,’ I said. One night I was reading about glacial grooving being still visible in Central Park and, coincidentally, was taken to see the very same glacial grooving by Moshe Feder the very next day. Toting this book around meant everyone wanted to talk to me about John McPhee and recommend their favourite McPhee book. He made me a lot of friends. Annals of the Former World also saw me back across the Atlantic at the end of my trip, when my flight was first delayed, then cancelled and I had to be booked onto a new flight. John McPhee remains one of my favourite non-fiction writers.

There was also the holiday in Glastonbury when I decided I needed to read Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. I’d been reading Bester’s Tiger! Tiger! which draws on the Dumas and decided I needed to go back to the original text. I hadn’t anticipated just how mad a read it would be and became totally caught up in it. The proprietors of the little hotel we were staying in told us later they’d actually been quite worried about us the first few days we were there as we’d come down to breakfast and read, Paul with his book propped up against the teapot, me with my Penguin paperback propped up against the coffee pot, and not exchange a word with one another. Apparently, they thought we’d had a massive row and weren’t speaking until they finally realised, they said, that this was how we did breakfast. It is possibly as well they did not see us reading our way across the cafés and sightseeing spots of Glastonbury and beyond.