Where would the solo traveller be without books? I never step out of the door without at least one in my bag. With a book you are never alone, whether you are in the busiest restaurant or the most desolate mountainside.
I have always been a reader. I proudly graduated out of the Biff & Chip books before all of my friends. My father stopped taking me to football matches because I would read Harry Potter instead of watching. I went to the library at least once a day throughout school.
Nowadays, I have to use my eyes for reading serious things: textbooks, news articles, presentations. But when I’m on holiday, I can read whatever ridiculous, childish, gory nonsense I want. It’s part of the reason I travel, to get away from the obligation to fill my mind with sensible, important and boring.
When I look back on a holiday, I what I was reading as clearly as wherever I was. I’d like to share some of my strongest memories with you.
Kim, by Rudyard Kipling
I first read this when I was at school. The back described a plot about spies and politics and I was intrigued.
I admit that, first time round, I had little idea what was going on. It’s meant to be like that: you are looking at a complex and vast world through the eyes of a young boy who is more interested in food and fighting than explaining the plot. However, I was completely taken by the descriptions. Kim’s India is dusty, vibrant, beautiful, smokey and bright. He meets absurd, friendly, terrifying people and experiences the agony of repeated loss.
Heading to India, then, it was the obvious choice. Kipling gets a lot of stick for his racist descriptions of Indian people and customs and I get that, but the descriptions of the chaos and blurry delight of being in India are spot on. I loved reading it and it’s probably one of my favourite books ever.
Saturday, by Ian McEwan
I took this to central Europe. I took a lot of books to central Europe. Everything I took was a short, slim book that would fit in my bag with my (relatively hefty) guidebook.
I read The Cement Garden in school and never read any more McEwan after that: if you’ve read it, you’ll understand why! However, I really really enjoyed this one. It’s about the horror of modern life and it’s all set on one day. Some of the details are very familiar to me, like when the narrator makes a fish stew: my dad makes fish stew! Also, recently I’ve been playing a lot of squash and I want to go back and read that squash scene in the middle.
Another book I read in Budapest, but this book holds a much more significant place in my heart: it’s the book that inspired me to go to Sicily. Admittedly it took me two years to get there, but still!
Aside from the Godfather, this is the archetypal book of Sicilian life. It’s set in the mid-19th century and is ostensibly about Italian Unification. What it’s really about is love, and fatherhood, and family, and heat. There’s this incredible description at the start where, just after dinner, the Leopard goes out onto the terrace. He is struck by the pungent flowers in the evening sun, the smell is so strong he has to go back inside.
You have to read it if you’re planning on going anywhere near the south of Italy, but especially Sicily. It’s perfect.
Blackwater, by Jeremy Scahill
I read this in Sardinia. Not, I admit, a standard beach read, but I’d already finished my adventure story and I was bored of Father Brown. I found this on the bookshelf in the hostel.
This is a non-fiction book about the role of private soldiers, mainly in the USA-Iraq war from 2003 but also in the various CIA conflicts in Central and South America. It’s a very shocking book but I refer to it as ‘American propaganda’ because I suspect it’s bogus. I shouldn’t trust it just because it’s liberal and anti-Bush!
I’ve never actually met anyone else who has read it (and I can’t convince my friends to start since it’s about 3 inches thick) so if you have read it or have opinions please let me know! I’ve always wanted to discuss it with someone.
The Trumpet Major, by Thomas Hardy
I’ve ‘always’ known about Hardy and written him off as cheesy and popular. I had completely forgotten this when I pluck The Trumpet Major off my bookshelf and I have to say I was blown away. No wonder he is so popular: the characters are so vivid and the storyline is both shocking and unstoppably obvious.
The book is set in a ‘romantic’ past: a time Hardy’s parents would have recognised. The bright, pastoral feel perfectly suited being in Enna, and Sicily generally.
I suppose the next step on my Hardy-ucation is Far from the Madding Crowd, but I’m back in my ‘Hardy is rubbish’ funk, so we’ll see…
The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
I read this in Naples. It’s actually set in Italy so quite appropriate, although northern Italy not southern. Once upon a time I read The Enchantress of Florence while in Tuscany: I was quite disappointed when it was set mostly in India.
The Name of the Rose is a murder mystery set in a monastery in medieval/Renaissance times. It’s all about the power of books and the stifling, terrifying effect of insular behaviour and attitudes. I admit that I wasn’t very keen on it to begin with but my hostel didn’t have anything I could swap with so I powered on through… The denouement in the library is truly sensational.
This is another book (like Kim) that has a really strong teacher-student bond at the heart of the book. I prefer books where the central relationship is platonic, I think it forces the author to try harder to justify and explore the relationship. The opposite of the Romeo and Juliet effect, perhaps.
So there we go! I tried to keep this post short, but as I was writing it so many more came to mind: reading The Perfect Spy in Utrecht; a set of short stories I found in the hotel in McLeod Ganj; Tender is the Night in a castle in Sardinia; The Cyberiad in Budapest; The French Lieutenant’s Woman in Prague…
And what’s next? I started reading The Count of Monte Cristo today but I can’t see myself taking that on holiday, it’s massive! I’ve wanted to read Bonfire of the Vanities or Vanity Fair (no connection) for a while so maybe I should get my hands on one of those.
What have you read on holiday? More importantly, which books are inseparable from the place you read them? Let me know x