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What makes the perfect holiday read?

IT’S the time of year when everyone is preparing for their Christmas break, planning festive menus and get-togethers, and packing their bags for a couple of weeks down the coast. But, what are the best books to take along for this precious time off? Is it better to go with a light and breezy, fun and frivolous book, or to grasp the opportunity of having a mind clear of work to delve into a classic that you’ve always wanted to read?

Recently a friend asked me whether The Divine Comedy would be a good choice for on the beach. I have never read Dante’s poetic vision of the afterlife, but I knew enough to scoff. A beach read? More like a book reserved for those embarking on a PhD in fine literature.

However, it got me thinking about the notion of a beach read, and whether we’ve got it all wrong. Perhaps a holiday is the perfect time to tackle a challenging book that we are unlikely to pick up amid the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives.

While we might pick up a book for 10 minutes before bed, or an hour on a Sunday before forgetting about it until the next lazy weekend, completely forgetting the story in between, on holidays we have the chance to immerse ourselves in a book for hours on end.

The level of time and concentration we can commit to books on holidays means that perhaps these are the times when we should be tackling those books we’ve always meant to read, but never had the opportunity. After all, most literature benefits from consistent reading, with fewer stretches between bursts, and this is particularly true of challenging books. If the language used is complex or unusual, it is much more accessible with longer reading sessions. You get used to the rhythm and the style in a way that is difficult when you only see it between long breaks.

In the same way, consistent reading can improve the reader’s empathy with the characters and sense of place within the novel. While it might seem incongruous to read of the cold, harsh winter of The Good People while swaying on a hammock in the tropics, it doesn’t matter when your mind is in the book, stoking fires and tramping through snow.

During my last holiday, in Bali, I took along The Natural Way of Things, without having much idea of what the book was about. So, I found myself in paradise, surrounded by the sounds of exotic birds and whirring fans, reading of women trapped in a harsh environment, fighting for survival against brutal captors. However, rather than being put off by this strange dichotomy, the contrast served to heighten my experience of the book.


But, where does this leave the stereotypical beach read?

Of course, sometimes holidays are not the time to tackle that daunting pile of to-reads on the bedside table. They can demand a complete respite from mental challenge, and an escape from reality. A rest from challenging words and concepts, when experimental fiction and impenetrable language are the last things the reader wants.

Years ago, I remember picking up The Debutante Divorcee from the bookcase of the hostel in which I was staying in Croatia as a backpacker. While I might not have chosen the book if my selection had have been wider (I was in a stage of reading in which I believed the more obscure a book, the better), I can’t imagine enjoying another one more. I loved the feeling of the sun on my face as I read of shopping, flirtation and the fictional New York party scene.

At other times, it is books that reflect the holiday location that can be the best. A Suitable Boy provides a warm introduction to India for the traveller, while Under the Tuscan Sun and Head Over Heel touch on both the idyllic and the less convenient realities of life in Italy, providing holiday-makers with a greater understanding of the place they are visiting. Of course, these books can’t possibly offer the whole reality – in any one place there are too many experiences of life in any place to fit in just one book – but they do provide highly-considered perspectives from those who have spent a longer time in the places than a short-term visitor might.

Similarly, it can be worthwhile to read a historical account of the place being visited, even when those histories are more sombre than sunny. It is intriguing to read For the Term of His Natural Life before visiting Tasmania, to get a sense of the island’s dark history, through which its current reality can be understood, while Stasiland by Anna Funder provides a fascinating insight into a particular time in Germany’s past, and the experience of its people.

Ultimately, a beach read can be anything you want it to be, from an opportunity to catch up on books too daunting to be tackled after a day of work, to a light and entertaining romp in New York society.

So Jono, I’m sorry for putting you off The Divine Comedy – it might, in fact, be the ultimate holiday read.

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