This is an essay by Andrew Blackman.
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.