Going on vacation? Don’t pack any books!

This is an essay by Andrew Blackman.

It’s the summer, and everyone from The Guardian to Oprah is recommending books to take on vacation with you.

But I’d like to make a different recommendation. Don’t take any books with you; bring some back instead.

To me, a vacation is a wonderful chance to discover new things, to break out of ruts and to enjoy a real sense of change and renewal. Yet when it comes to reading, many people pack their suitcase full of the same sort of books they’ve been reading the other 50 weeks of the year. It seems a shame.

Think local, read local

My approach is to pack no books at all, and instead to buy all my holiday reading from a local bookshop when I arrive. For me, an important part of travelling is coming to understand the culture of the place I’m visiting, and there’s no better way to do that than by reading books by local writers. I realise that people take holidays for different reasons, of course, and some people simply want to relax on their two weeks off. But nobody said the books have to be serious. Even if you just want a comforting beach read, why not choose one by a local writer?

Books make great souvenirs.

I’ve never been much of a fan of buying plates, ashtrays and other nicknacks with a country’s name emblazoned across them, but I do like to remember the places I’ve visited. Buying books is a solution that works for me – I have a whole collection on my shelves from ten years of travelling, and a mere glance at the spine is enough to bring back happy memories. There’s the beautiful leather-bound copy of the Koran, with Arabic lettering on one page and the English translation opposite, that I bought in a small town in southern Tunisia; there’s the Anne Rice novel I spooked myself with while staying in an eery, crumbling old mansion in the Garden District of New Orleans back in 2002; or how about Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, bought in the heart of the city it describes?

There is no language barrier

That Pamuk book was a translation, bought from an English-language bookshop. It’s amazing to me how many places in the world sell books in English, either in specialised English-language bookstores or simply in sections of regular stores. If you’re lucky enough to be an English speaker, then language really is no barrier. I recently challenged myself by buying a book in French – more on that later – but the ready availability of translations means that, unless you’re travelling to a very out-of-the-way place, you’ll be able to find something in English.

On the other hand, if you’re not travelling abroad this year, you can still buy locally. In fact, many of the books on my souvenir shelf are from the years when I lived in New York and most of my trips were exploring within the United States. I loved buying books by local writers wherever I went, like the Anne Rice book in New Orleans, which was the type of thing I’d never normally read. I also discovered some wonderful independent bookstores up and down the country, my favourite being the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, a place I could easily have spent my whole vacation in, if the call of the Rockies hadn’t been so strong.

What I brought back this year

I just got back from a little tour of four Caribbean islands: St Lucia, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Dominica. It was a busy trip, and I was staying in people’s homes so there was not much time for reading: after a day of sightseeing, I spent the evening chatting with my hosts. So I only bought one book in each country, and still didn’t get through all of them. Here’s my haul, anyway.

In St Lucia, the most famous writer is Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott, but I’m already familiar with his work so decided to try out something different. I met the poet Kendel Hippolyte at a literary festival and liked his work, and bizarrely I ran into him again randomly on a street in St Lucia during my visit, so took that as a sign, and bought his poetry collection Birthright.

I went from poetry to theory in Martinique, picking up a copy of Caribbean Discourse, a collection of essays by the celebrated poet and critic Edouard Glissant.

Guadeloupe was where I took the plunge and bought a book in French: Maryse Condé’s Le coeur à rire et à pleurer – Souvenirs de mon enfance. I used to read French quite well, but it’s been a very long time, and this is a real challenge for me. I’m going slowly, but so much of the language is coming back to me. I’m on page 4 so far.

Dominica is best known in the literary world for Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea, but I already had a copy so, again, decided to look further afield. I came across Ma Williams and her Circle of Friends by Giftus John, a nostalgic story about old village life.

I’m enjoying my purchases, and they’ll make great reminders of a really special trip. Better than a souvenir plate any day!

Where are you going on vacation this summer? What do you plan to read?


Andrew Blackman is the author of the novel On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, 2009), which won the Luke Bitmead Writer’s Bursary and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. His next novel, A Virtual Love, deals with identity in the age of social networking, and is out in spring 2013. He was born in London, worked as a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal in New York, and is currently living in Barbados while he works out his next move.


  1. Christina Hamlett

    Great idea! One of our favorite things to do when we go on vacation is to pop into bookstores and troll the aisles that feature local writers and regional perspectives on the town’s history, landmarks and luminaries. I now have quite a collection, for instance, of folklore and ghost stories which I’m sure I would never have discovered back home or in any of the major chain venues. Since my husband is a gourmet chef, I also keep an eye out for regional cookbooks – many of which are compilations of old family recipes that have been put together by local clubs as a way to raise money for worthy causes.

    1. Andrew Blackman

      Hi Christina,
      Thanks for the comment! We have quite a bit in common – reading to each other, and book-shopping on vacation too! I’m a hopeless chef, though, so haven’t discovered the regional cookbook phenomenon. I’ll look out for it next time. Must be a great way to discover unusual recipes. And supporting worthy causes is always good too!

      1. Christina Hamlett

        Andrew – Among my favorite treasure trove places to find regional cookbooks are in gift shops in Alexandria and Washington, DC. Boston is pretty good, too. I think it’s because these cities foster a lot of ladies social groups that enjoy self-publishing their old family recipes. Some of my colleagues have recommended New Orleans, Mobile, Savannah and Myrtle Beach as promising venues as well.

  2. Lisa K. Winkler

    Great idea as long as you can be sure there are bookstores and books in English (or whatever language you need.)

    1. Andrew Blackman

      True. As I mentioned in the post, I’ve always been amazed by the ready availability of English-language books in so many parts of the world. I think if there’s a reasonably large town near where you’re travelling to, there shouldn’t be a problem. But yes, if you’re going to a more out-of-the-way place, it might pay to take some emergency reading supplies along with you!

  3. Francine Garson @francinegarson

    In addition to buying books as meaningful souvenirs, it’s also extremely important for readers everywhere to support independent bookshops at home and abroad. Just don’t forget to bring at least one book for the plane, train, car, or bus.

    1. Andrew Blackman

      Hi Francine,
      Absolutely – independent bookshops need all the help they can get these days. There’s so much competition for them to face, and they are so important – searching on your Kindle while on vacation and downloading an ebook by a local author just wouldn’t be the same, would it? It would also be harder to find the sort of local, small-press initiatives that Christine talks about in her comment – independent bookstores are vital for supporting those initiatives.

      1. Andrew Blackman

        Oh, and good point about a book for the car/plane/etc. I get sick if I read, so prefer to look out of the window (or stare straight ahead and grip the arm-rest until my knuckles turn white, depending on how bad it is!). But those with stronger stomachs will probably want something to keep them going!

  4. Jessica McCann (@JMcCannWriter)

    Great post! Some of the favorite books on my shelf are treasures discovered by chance while on vacation — from the biography of Doc Susie purchased at a tiny book fair in Florrisant, Colorado to the Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin purchased at the Des Moines, Iowa Living History Farm bookshop. I especially like your point about supporting local bookstores and authors.

    1. Andrew Blackman

      Hi Jessica,

      Those sound like some good memories. I’d never heard of Doc Susie, but looked her up online and she seems to have quite a story. That’s what I love about buying books on vacation – you get two for the price of one. A book that (hopefully) introduces you to some fascinating new things, and the memory of the trip itself. And supporting local bookstores and authors is important, too.

      On the subject of bookstores, I’ve noticed that sometimes in very touristy places they try to cater specifically for tourists by carrying things like guide books and maps and picture books about the place. But I wonder if they’d do better just by stocking great books by local authors (the thing that independent bookstores do best anyway)!

  5. Joseph

    I like this idea so much – I distinctly remember going to NYC (so different from living in South Florida your whole life) and browsing the huge three-story bookstores for a copy of The God of Small Things. It was so memorable for me. I hardly pay attention to where all of my books come from when I’m at home, so it’s nice to have these great memories when you travel. Supporting local indie bookstores (which don’t even exist where I live) is also a plus!

    1. Andrew Blackman

      Hi Joseph
      That’s sad to hear about a whole area with no independent bookstores! I suppose I’ve been lucky, living in London and New York – although a lot of indies have closed down, there are still plenty left! Must’ve been a great trip to New York. I’m the same – couldn’t say where most of my books came from, so it’s good to have specific memories attached to some of them.

      1. Christina Hamlett

        If you ever take a trip to Portland, Oregon, you’ll be in book heaven with a trip to Powells. It’s 5 or 6 color-coded floors of literary and commercial bliss. I visited with some writer gal pals last September and it was a good thing we all had cell phones because two of us actually got lost for half an hour. I wonder at closing time if they have a special sweep brigade to go through and make sure everyone has left the building!

        1. Andrew Blackman

          Wow, sounds wonderful! I’ve bought some stuff online from Powells in the past, but never been to the store itself. I had no idea it was so huge! Thanks for the recommendation, Christina. I’ve heard Portland’s a beautiful city, so might make a trip one day!

  6. Chris

    What a great idea! I like to do this with books….and music, especially street musicians that happen to be selling a cd. I also like to buy hand-made art and products from local artisans. If you want to buy local books and enjoy a local book culture, I highly recommend Barcelona on April 23rd, Sant Jordi (St. George). The city fills to the brim with books and roses.

    1. Andrew Blackman

      Wow, books and roses! That sounds incredible. Barcelona is a beautiful city at any time, but I’ll definitely plan to visit on April 23rd one year. Thanks for the recommendation, Chris!

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