It's that time of year for vacationers everywhere. Itineraries are set. Hotels or cottages have been booked. Airline tickets are in hand. Now suitcases lie open on the bed, ready for packing. Decisions loom large on two fronts: what to wear and what to read.
For peripatetic book lovers, the hardest questions center around literary choices. Afraid of being caught with nothing - or the wrong thing - to read, they tend to overcompensate, preparing themselves for vagaries of mood and climate and circumstance. And why not? A book that works in a noisy, restless airport during a five-hour flight delay isn't necessarily the same one that proves satisfying on a quiet rainy day in a lakefront cabin.
Fiction? Nonfiction? Memoirs? Mysteries? The possibilities are tantalizing - and endless. So many books, so little time!
A friend sends a prevacation e-mail, voicing his own uncertainties. "I am trying to decide what to take for two weeks in Bellingham," he writes. "One 'big' book in size and 'I-really-should-read-this' importance? Or several paperbacks for variety, or a tried-and-true volume of Patrick O'Brian? Is this the time to lock myself up with 'Moby Dick'? Or 'Middlemarch'? Or 'A Dance to the Music of Time'? How to decide??!!"
The right book can enhance the pleasure of a vacation, becoming inextricably linked with memories of a particular place. I still recall reading Tillie Olsen's "Silences" on a beach in Maui 20 years ago. At the same time, the wrong book - wrong at least for this time or place - can be a millstone in the suitcase, a mistake that grows heavier with each step.
My own guidelines for reading on the road include these suggestions:
*Take softcover books, unless the trip involves a single destination. Once read, a paperback can be left on a plane or in a hotel, offering pass-along pleasure to someone else. In countries with English-language titles, replace a book you've jettisoned with one from a native author for a cross-cultural experience.
*Read a few pages or a chapter at home first to test the style and subject. Dust-jacket blurbs can be misleading.
*Ask friends for recommendations. Savoring a friend's latest favorite title offers a satisfying connection when you're far from home.
*Consider cultural compatibility. Reading about Japan in "Memories of a Geisha" while traveling in England, for instance, might represent too much of a cultural disconnect.
*Avoid sad or tragic themes on vacation, however worthy the books might be. Travel is a time to lighten spirits, not bog them down.
More than a century ago, a weighty tome titled "Best Fifty Books of the Greatest Authors, Condensed for Busy Readers," summed up the challenge facing book lovers of every era. "How many people," the editors wondered, "are compelled by circumstances to limit their acquaintance to a few books of the passing day, leaving a world of delight, entertainment, and instruction unknown to them! And if they have the disposition to acquire this knowledge, where in the vast array of volumes confronting them shall they begin?"
For devoted readers, hungry for the "world of delight, entertainment, and instruction" in books, that is the unwritten question heading any summer reading list. Properly chosen, a list will balance a sense of accomplishment with a sense of pleasure, providing the literary equivalent of veggies and dessert.
Happy packing, vacationers.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society