Plato and a Bottle of Sunscreen Lotion

IT is, fortunately, only a dream:

I am stranded, along with thousands of other vacationing travelers, in a fog-shrouded airport. All flights have been canceled until further notice, and there is nothing to do but settle in and wait.

I reach into my carry-on case for a book. Not there. I check my briefcase - empty. Panicked, I head for the airport newsstand, but too late. The paperback rack has been picked clean by other thwarted travelers. Ditto for all magazines and newspapers. Suddenly I am a traveler with no literary passport, a reader with nothing to read.

For those of us who read anywhere and everywhere - who consider books one of life's great necessities and pleasures - the prospect of being caught printless, however briefly, can be disconcerting, even in a dream.

It is an irrational concern, given the ubiquitous presence of B.Dalton and Waldenbooks in shopping malls across the country. But never mind logic. We go prepared. We line the bottom of our suitcases with hardcovers. We stash paperbacks in our tote bags. We tuck magazines under our arms. In the process we become literary camels, storing refreshment as protection against an imagined Sahara of the printed word. We may forget to pack a toothbrush or walking shoes, but no matter. All the petty annoyances that confront a traveler diminish if we can just be guaranteed a good read on the road.

The right book becomes the perfect traveling partner. It can serve as a shield against talkative seatmates. It can lift a pilgrim's spirits at the end of long hours on a turnpike. It can salvage a rainy day when you get to where you're going. It can ease a sense of loneliness that may cast a passing shadow over any vacationer away from home. Knowing this, a wandering reader would just as soon go on vacation without credit cards as without books.

But which books? The choice of the right reading matter is far more complex than packing the right clothes. It's easy to anticipate the average summer temperature in London or Los Angeles, but how do you know in advance what your literary mood will be?

Conventional wisdom holds that vacation reading must be light as a summer breeze, putting all thought processes on hold. Yet a vacation itself is diversion, and as the body heads for the beach and a prone position, the mind may crave exercise - something substantial to work out on. Plato and a bottle of sunscreen lotion are not incompatible travelers in a vacationer's suitcase.

That theory is not without peril, of course. One friend packed Alexander Solzhenitzyn's ``The First Circle'' for a trip to Ireland. But soon after she arrived the weather turned wet. As it rained and rained, she stayed in her room and read and read. Now, whenever she thinks of Ireland, all lush and green and damp, she thinks also of life in the Soviet gulag, cold and cruel and devastating.

Some travelers match their reading to their current locale. For instance, I have read - and loved - John Steinbeck's ``Cannery Row'' and ``The Red Pony'' on California's Monterey Peninsula, Wordsworth's poetry in England's Lake District, and Sir Walter Scott's ``The Heart of Midlothian'' in Scotland. Similarly, the Ala Moana shopping center in Honolulu remains forever fixed in memory, the combination of a brief visit one afternoon and - purely by coincidence - a haunting description of it that evening while reading Joan Didion's essay ``On the Mall'' in her collection, ``The White Album.''

Essays, in fact, offer ideal reading on the road - literary fragments to match the snippets of time available to the traveler, small morsels to be savored and digested here before moving on to there. With essays, one can read carefully, thoughtfully, or flit casually from subject to subject, like a monarch butterfly in a milkweed patch.

Curiously, short stories - the fiction equivalent of essays - don't work as well on the go. With all those diverse characters and settings, they can prove too staccato, too much like the stop-and-go of travel itself. When every day brings a new location and every night a different bed, it is the characters in novels who offer a comforting sense of continuity, an anchor in the midst of change.

When in doubt, take along humor - something that will help you laugh when, inevitably, the pesky vicissitudes of travel make you want to cry.

And don't forget to bring your S.J. Perelman or other humorous reading home with you. Just remember how badly you need laughs during those 48 weeks between vacations.

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