The Reading Life: Vacation reading

Los Angeles Times Book Critic

Next week, my kids and I will be flying east to Massachusetts, to spend a week with extended family on Cape Cod. It’s a trip we make every summer, to a rambling old house on a bluff overlooking the Atlantic, and yet each year as we get ready I can’t help but feel a certain low-level anxiety.

Partly, the cause of this is family; partly, the act of leaving home. But more than anything, my tension involves a question with which I’ve grappled since childhood: Which books should I bring?

I am, after all, a peripatetic reader, although I read for a living as well. I like choices, which means I always carry more books than I need. And yet, the necessities of travel (not to mention an aging back) dictate that these books can’t be too heavy, or take up too much space. What’s a reader to do?

One solution, of course, would be an e-reader. But while I go on the road with (and occasionally read on) an iPad, I like the reassurance of ink on paper. When I travel, then, it is in the company of a small library, print and digital.


So, what am I bringing to the Cape this summer? First are three books about walking, for a project I’ve got in the works: Bruce Chatwin’s “The Songlines,” which I’ve read but need to revisit; Michael Cunningham’s “Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown” (if the shoe fits); and Robert Walser’s “The Walk.”

Then, several works of fiction: Stewart O’Nan’s novel of a disintegrating marriage, “The Odds: A Love Story”; Delmore Schwartz’s short story collection “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” recently reissued; Seicho Matsumoto’s Japanese noir “Pro Bono”; and Paul Tremblay’s new novel “Swallowing A Donkey’s Eye,” which looks like “Animal Farm” refracted through a Terry Gilliam-style lens.

Last, there’s Stig Dagerman’s “German Autumn,” a book of reportage from Germany in the immediate aftermath of World War II that I’ve been carrying around since last summer. Yet this is the whole point of summer reading: its limitless promise, the possibility that we will, finally, get to everything, that, to steal a phrase from Rod Serling, there will be time enough at last.

And what if I do get to everything? (I won’t, but it’s a compelling fantasy.) Well, then, there’s always the iPad, loaded by now with a few hundred titles, from Chester Burnett to T.S. Eliot, Nelson Algren to Arthur Conan Doyle.


I don’t read new books on the iPad, although it has become a way to reconnect with the old. Still, at the same time, it is more than that: a wild card, an agent of serendipity (something else I associate with summer) and a standing guarantee that I will always have something to read.

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