On a trip last week with my daughter, I packed two novels and she packed six. We were going to be away for seven days. We each packed libraries that reflected our reading speeds, but you could reasonably question both of us for planning to spend a significant amount of time reading during a trip abroad. As someone who loves to read and who loves to travel, I find myself wondering about the joys and complications of combining the two. What, in fact, is the proper approach to reading while on a vacation? If you're traveling even partly for the purpose of discovering someplace new, should you plan to devote hours and hours transported to the fictional world of a novel?
Well, of course you shouldn't walk around the Rijksmuseum with your nose in a book and miss the Rembrandts; and you shouldn't visit the Grand Canyon and never take your eyes off your paperback. If you're lucky enough to have the time and the funds to go to a new place, you'd better give yourself a chance to experience it. Otherwise, what is the point? There was a time when I would have scoffed at the thought of doing so much reading on a trip, instead of seeing the sights. But I've come around on this point. I'm going to defend the kind of vacation in which reading becomes part of the pleasure of the trip. After years of miles traveled and pages turned, I'm convinced that there are ways in which reading deepens a vacation -- and deepens the books you read as well.
To start with, there is the kind of novel-reading that places the fictional setting over the real one in a kind of multiple exposure. You read the novelist's story, and you create your own to layer over it. There are some wonderful pairings one might attempt: A Room With a View while in Florence, Zadie Smith's NW during a visit to London, or Arthur Phillips' Prague for a stay in Budapest.
Even richer, though, are the pairings of books and places that have no apparent connection to each other. Atonement will forever be associated for me with the final days of a trip to Greece, during which my family's interactions took on the significance of the Tallises' far more portentous entanglements. I remember finishing the novel on the plane and sitting in stunned silence, looking around at the backs of my fellow passengers' heads, as if expecting them to weigh in on what McEwan had just pulled off. The English Patient carried me through a train ride from London to Edinburgh, with the Highlands fusing somehow with the colored glass bottles that dangle from the cart of the merchant in the desert sands. Or at least that's how I remember that particular section of the novel. And though I may be remembering it wrong, the image is no less powerful. It's a sort of amalgam of Ondaatje's marvelous writing and the scenery I was vaguely aware of as the train rolled north.
There is something about taking a book with you that intensifies the reading experience and burns the memory of the trip more indelibly in your mind. I think it has to do with the fact that both reading and travel are experiences of dislocation. While we travel, we're already living in a new narrative, a fictional version of our regular lives. We let our routines go; we form new ones; we let our email lie fallow. Our minds are ready for -- maybe even more open to -- the fictional world of a novel.
So instead of fighting it, we should embrace the chance to live vicariously, in two new worlds at once. For our trip last week, my daughter and I were in Italy. But we also visited World War I Britain, 1970s San Francisco, Florence, World War II Prague, and an American college town, among other places. We're feeling no guilt about all the time we spent in these fictional worlds. But maybe for our next trip, we'll take ebooks.
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