Monday, September 01, 2008

Holiday Reading or an Escape Route from the Tyranny of Choice...

As I walked in this morning I turned to the vexed question of what to read on holiday.

First on the list was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson - the latest greatest Scandinavian crime writer. Fulham Road Claire said this was the book she enjoyed most on her holidays and I have heard and read many other good things about it. One down.

Then I thought I'd try Pollard by Laura Beatty. Fulham Road Jane said this was fantastic (has to be a good sign when a bookshop owner is taking book recommendations from his staff eh?) It is about a lady who goes off to live in the woods.

Last of all I thought I would take The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald. I have avoided reading this for bloomin ages now, knowing that the bookshop involved does not have a happy ending. Maybe I've grown up or something? (Maybe not) But I felt it was time to face it.

A few paces later, having admired a Buddleia growing amongst a cluster of cans of special brew, I realised I was drifting into a mistake. Choosing holiday reading like this is bound to fail. I'm not on holiday yet and so my mood and mind are centred on work stuff. The Bookshop was obviously chosen because I feel close to the central situation of the novel. But in Cornwall I won't be thinking much about bookshops. (I hope) Similarly Pollard taps into my "I need a holiday" feeling that has most of me screaming "Run to the woods and hide!" (A similar mood has me hanging around the compost heap at the bottom of the garden)

All the best holiday books I remember reading are ones I didn't choose myself but just sort of came across whilst away. I remember reading Red Dragon by Thomas Harris one summer and being totally terrified. Similarly JG Ballard's The Unlimited Dream Company took my brain to pieces and put it back together again after I casually picked it off a dusty farmhouse shelf. John Gray's Straw Dogs started an argument that lasted most of a holiday.

But how do you choose without choosing?

I walked onward. My head was starting to overheat in the morning sun - crazy weather or what? - so I took it off and put it in my jacket pocket. (The hat, not my head)

I remembered Dr Rick telling me about Robert Frost's great poem The Road Not Taken. It is regularly polled as the nation's favourite poem in the United States - a country that LOVES to choose. And yet Dr Rick reckons (and Dr Rick is always right people!) that the last line is in fact a joke.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Choosing one road or the other has in fact ended up making very little difference. The act of choosing, the illusion it gives us of control, is elevated to absurd heights. What I choose to read on holiday will make very little difference. There is no perfect book list for me. I will just choose three and I might like them or I might not. The probability is that I will find something else whilst I'm away and love reading that. After all if past form is anything to go by I'm better off leaving the choosing to chance...

I still feel that there are certain books that call to you though and I will probably take the three mentioned above.

To Be Continued...


  1. I'm now pretty much devoted to reading holiday books that are set in the place that I'm visiting: I like to escape to the same place mentally as physically. Which is admittedly easier for me, just leaving for Berlin, than you just leaving for Cornwall. But still leaves plenty of du Maurier, Arthurian legend, John Fowles and pirate stories ...

  2. jonathan - I hope you packed Joseph Roth's What I Saw - Reports From Berlin 1920 - 1933

    I read that on a recent trip to Berlin and it was just superb.

  3. Absolutely! And the brilliant, anonymous Diary of a Woman in Berlin, about the Russian invasion in 1945 - one of the best first hand accounts of the aftermath of the war.