It’s possible, although not easy, to hold 11 books in one hand while steering a luggage cart with the other.
Or so I learned on the first leg of my summer vacation trip last month, as I carried my suitcase and my reading material down the hall toward the hotel room.
For a trip lasting eight days, I’d brought an armful of volumes with a collective page count of 4,094. To complete all of these books while I traveled through the Smokies and into North Carolina, I would have needed to read nearly 512 pages each day.
Assuming that I could read 30 pages an hour, that would have been 17 hours of daily reading, leaving no time for the other fun things I wanted to do: tubing down North Carolina’s New River, kayaking, dining, or sitting in a deck chair and scouting the treeline for egrets.
On summer vacations, we never read as much as we think we will. But we can still dream, which is why I brought along “Three by Annie Dillard,” a trilogy of her autobiographical writings I’d gotten for Christmas, but somehow hadn’t gotten around to reading. I also packed three volumes of Phyllis Theroux’s personal writings: “California and Other States of Grace,” “Peripheral Visions,” and “Night Lights.” Why three Theroux books and not just one? Because I like full immersion in a writer when I travel. It can be like taking a long car trip with a good friend – or a prospective friend – the rich possibility of talk, talk, talk as the accumulation of miles takes you ever farther from home.
I included “Thoreau: A Book of Quotations” and the latest Princeton edition of Thoreau’s early letters because the Sage of Walden always inspires me to slow down and pay attention. That’s the kind of awareness you want on a vacation.
For the same reason, I packed Verlyn Klinkenborg’s “More Scenes from the Rural Life,” his essays about his upstate New York farm. He sees so much that you can’t help reading him and improving your vision, too.
Finally, I packed my mammoth edition of Montaigne’s essays, an advance copy of Diane Ackerman’s yet-to-be-released “The Human Age,” and a review copy of “Ciao, Carpaccio,” a Jan Morris title that also won’t hit stores for a while. Also, a collection of Mark Twain’s letters from Hawaii. I might be writing about Montaigne, Ackerman, Morris, and Twain soon. I thought that reading them on vacation might make me feel industrious.
Stacked atop each other, my summer vacation books made an 11-inch stack weighing 13 pounds. I’m a romantic about summer reading, but I’m not crazy. I knew that I wouldn’t read all of these books on my trip, just as I wouldn’t hike every mountain trail or navigate every turn of the New River.
But there’s comfort in knowing that these things are simply there, available if we want them, or just a portion of them, as a day unfolds. Vacations, so much about the indulgence of desire, naturally inspire us to want reading by the boatload. Wasn’t it Mae West who wisely observed that too much of a good thing can be wonderful?
I thought about West on the drive home from North Carolina, as I stopped by Asheville’s celebrated independent bookstore, Malaprop’s, and picked up a copy of Wendell Berry’s “It All Turns on Affection.”
That’s how my vacation reading stack, already an embarrassment of riches, reached an even dozen.