ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT ARTS & CULTURE

Off The Shelf: What to pack for a trip? Great times -- and tomes -- in Europe

Packing for vacation offers special challenges for a family of bookworms.

This year we went to Europe, which meant we couldn't just toss a satchel of books into the trunk.

Some airlines charge per bag. Heavy luggage costs more. Plus you have to schlep those bags the entire trip.

But having something to read is as important to us as wearing good walking shoes.

I'm a novelist. My husband's a librarian. The teenager can plow through two books a day. The tween takes several days to devour one.

But we all get a little itchy when we reach "The End" and realize there's nothing at the bottom of the suitcase.

Amazon wants us to buy a Kindle. But we'd have to buy four, you see, or else we'd squabble. And at $299 a pop, we're talking $1,200. Almost what I paid for two plane tickets to Amsterdam! So sorry, Kindle. I'm not shelling out for a product that is only going to get better and cheaper in a few years.

Besides, we like the artifact quality of a book. We like to hold it, turn pages, flip to our favorite passages, loan it out or give it away.

And so the strategic planning began. And the suitcases began to fill up.

First were nine books covering various aspects of the Netherlands, France and Belgium. (Yes we did need each one).

The teenager was working his way through Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" series so he brought six of those. I knew he'd be open to suggestion after that, so I packed "The Count of Monte Cristo," "The Three Musketeers" and "I, Claudius" by Robert Graves, a tale of ancient Rome that would nicely complement his seventh grade history lessons. Sneaky me, I hoped to stick them in his hands when he was most vulnerable.

The tween packed several books from the "Redwall" series by Brian Jacques (an epic tale about a medieval animal kingdom) as well as "Fly by Night" by Frances Hardinge, about a runaway orphan and her pet goose. For his airplane reading, after the movies and cartoons, he brought "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh" by Robert O'Brien.

My husband packed a bunch of New Yorkers and Bertrand Russell's 836-page "History of Western Philosophy."

As for me, I took "Sacred Games," a 900-page Indian crime novel by Vikram Chandra. It weighed 3 pounds on our bathroom scale.

I also brought "The Eye of the World," the first volume of Robert Jordan's epic fantasy series "The Wheel of Time." It's a 782-page book that starts where J.R.R. Tolkien left off and I hoped it might also appeal to the teenager.

Last, I packed Ahdaf Soueif's Man Booker Prize finalist "The Map of Love," set in colonial and modern Egypt. It would be perfect with coffee and pain au chocolat in Place des Vosges in the Marais district of Paris, where we'd procured an apartment.

Twenty books wouldn't hold us long, but I had a plan.

The English bookstore chain Waterstone's had a branch in Amsterdam, and I knew the kids were eager to read several novels already out in the United Kingdom that wouldn't be published in the United States until fall.

One was "Fever Crumb," a prequel to the "Hungry Cities Chronicles" by Philip Reeve. The boys also wanted "The Ask and the Answer," the sequel to Patrick Ness' "The Knife of Never Letting Go" in the "Chaos Walking" series.

So on our last day in Amsterdam, we hopped on our rented bikes like all the Dutch and cycled over.

The kids' eyes lighted up upon finding their books, and they began reading in the Waterstone's window alcove. The teenager also found an Artemis Fowl graphic novel and two more Terry Pratchetts he couldn't live without.

My husband and I swallowed hard when the clerk cheerfully announced the total: 112 euros (about $150).

At this point, you might be wondering when exactly did we find time to read while touring Amsterdam, Paris, Bruges and the Belgian countryside. I

Well, admittedly, the kids have way more time than we do.

My husband and I always seemed to be negotiating maps or driving or packing the suitcases for the next leg. Or just gazing dreamily at the sights. We read on planes and at night before going to sleep.

The kids, however, read all the time. They read on the plane. They read on the Paris Metro. They read in carved wooden chairs at the 600-year-old Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam, where we dragged them to a Bach organ and oboe recital. (At least the glorious sound washed over them).

They read in all the interstices of dead time that beset travelers as they wait for flights, in security lines, hotel lobbies and car rental counters. They read at cafes while we dawdled over a glass of wine or the amazing yeasty beer the Belgians call Gueuze.

Driving to the Haute Fagnes National Park in eastern Belgium, we asked the teenager to close his book and feast his eyes on the emerald landscape, the picturesque stone houses, the pointed church steeples.

"It's just fields and cows," he muttered, lifting his eyes reluctantly.

He was deep into "The Eye of the World" by then, having finished all his own books, including the new ones.

"You have to experience this," I said. "It's so gorgeous and green and pastoral, the exact opposite of Los Angeles."

"Mom, I'm trying to read!"

I know, I know, I asked for it. I got exactly what I deserved.

Still, I confiscated the book until we got to Durbuy, a medieval town with cobblestone streets, slate roofs and papier-mâché pigs in store windows happily advertising charcuterie.

"Doesn't this remind you of Rand's world in the Jordan novel?" I asked the teenager as my husband navigated past the River Ourthe, a castle and a fragrant fromagerie toward our 500-year-old inn.

Perking up, he looked around and admitted that it did.

"Can I please have my book back now?" he said.

After 17 days in Europe, we packed to head home. Luckily, Delta didn't charge for the extra suitcase that held our new books and souvenirs.

On the plane, I did a quick inventory. The tween had finished all his books and several of his brother's. The teenager was halfway through "I, Claudius." The New Yorkers were gone but my husband was still communing with Bertrand Russell.

I'd read several books. But I hadn't cracked "Sacred Games."

I'm going to San Diego next month.

I think I'll pack it.

Hamilton's latest crime novel is "The Last Embrace." She is the editor of the short-story anthology "Los Angeles Noir."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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