Against reading on holiday

Ideas, they say, weigh nothing. Their receptacles are another matter. According to my amateur polling, most of us return from holiday with two or three books that we didn’t read.

My estimate is that the weight of these unread holiday companions is equivalent to 650,000 people for U.K. holidaymakers alone. That’s four times the population of Oxford keeping schtum in our luggage.

This year, for an Interrail trip, I packed five and returned with all of them, having only managed three chapters. I resolve now to never take a book on holiday again.

Holidays are their own fiction: a chance to step outside our lives and experience others. The worlds we travel to are not our own.

I took a set of well-reviewed books with me: Olga Torcarkzuk’s Flights, a book of essays about astronauts’ experiences on their return, Rabbit Run (the record holder for non-read holiday book), and a couple of others. They were largely undisturbed. On an evening train into Bucharest I narrowly missed a blood red moon rising over the city. It was by chance that I looked up from the moon essays to see it on what was either the anniversary or eve of the Apollo 11 moon landing. On other days, had I mapped out time to read I would have missed countless accidental discoveries.

Eastern European trains, in my experience, are slow. There were large tracts of time that could have been spent with my pages in a book, but I would have missed so much, not least the necessary boredom. There were the station guards, the architecture, the varieties of haystacks, the deer, the rivers, the sky, the passengers in passing trains. Like all fiction, they are proximate depictions of ourselves. The journey has a beginning, middle and end, a cast, several ‘All is lost’ moments, people who save cats. There is the man in the gabardine suit who may be a spy.

On certain holidays, poolside for instance, I can see that a book will take you out of where you are, but I wonder whether they are really holidays. They seem to me to be more treatment than treat. Holidays are spent in the world, stretching our imaginations and our senses. Books are vital, but they are at their best when they are escape hatches from the everyday, not a distraction from the real business of adventure.