But it made me wonder: What makes a good holiday read? Is it a novel that takes place in the city where you are and that gives a thrill of recognition every time you come across a street corner or a square where a plot is unfolding? Is it a documentary book about this place that helps you understand its history, culture or architecture? Is this the biography of someone closely associated with this city?
Or is it something else: an independent palate cleanser chosen to help reset the mind after a hectic day of sightseeing? Vacations are meant to be an escape. Would your escape benefit from escape literature?
For me, choosing the right book(s) to take on vacation is almost as much fun as the vacation itself. I still don’t quite understand. I managed to complete the first person narrative of a survivor of the Uruguayan rugby team that crash landed in the Andes and resorted to cannibalism, but it was a poor choice for a beach house on the Outer Banks. In a way, though, “Moby Dick” was perfect for a rainy weekend in Chincoteague in the 1980s with my then-girlfriend. Would the relationship survive the fact that we are stuck in a small apartment, each of us in his corner, in his head? (Reader, I married her.)
Reading has the magical ability to transport us. Your body is in one place, your mind in another. The setting of a book may be more important than the physical setting of the person reading it – I’d rather read a good book in a bad setting than a bad book in a good setting – but that doesn’t mean the two don’t. are not related. Just as the right wine can elevate a meal, the right setting can elevate a book – and vice versa.
From time to time, everything comes together: the reading version of the Aristotelian unity of time, place and action. And it’s not just during the holidays. I sometimes like to read in the bathtub, where I can bask in the amniotic foam, drying my fingers on a towel to turn the pages. I loved reading At Jasper Fforde’s ‘Early Riser’ – a fantasy novel about a world gripped by an ice age, where most humans hibernate to spend the winter – as steam rose from the bathtub and frost painted on the glass.
I knew the French Tana paperback wouldn’t last me through the holidays, and I was looking forward to buying something in the country, so to speak – if I could find a Portuguese bookstore that sold books in English. In Porto, we visited the Livrario Lello, which has been called the most beautiful bookstore in the world. It’s an art nouveau masterpiece, a showcase of carved wooden flourishes, stained glass windows and a curved staircase painted crimson. Being inside the store made me want to drink absinthe.
Livrario Lello has become a fixture that a queue stretches outside the door and you need a timed entry ticket – 5 euros, good for any purchase – just to enter.
The store is not organized like your typical Barnes and Noble. None of the titles are stamped in embossed foil like the thrillers that adorn airport newsstands. Lello chooses to organize books in unique ways, including by authors who have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, deceased authors who should have earned it, and the living who still might. There is a special section devoted to the books of Portugal’s only Nobel laureate: Jose Saramago (1998).
To be honest, I didn’t know anything about the guy. But I thought to myself: When in Rome… I picked up a paperback copy of “Blindness” and started reading: “The orange light went on. Two of the cars accelerated before the red light appeared. At the crosswalk, a green man’s sign lit up.
Saramago never says where this city street is — in which country the events of the novel take place — but now that I was in Portugal (was I still there!), I could imagine it in Portugal, on the corner from my hotel, near the tram stop, next to the bakery…
“Yes,” I thought as I took the book to the cashier, “that’ll be fine.”
How do you decide which books to bring on vacation? Did you have a particularly sublime experience with your choice – or a bad one? Send me the details – with “Reading Material” in the subject line – to email@example.com.