Vacation Reading: Go Easy or Difficult?

The beach where I did NOT read Mother Goose last week. (Photo by my wife, Laurel Cummins.)

Vacation reading! If you’re not constantly sightseeing, you might have more time to read than when you’re home. There might be long hours to fill on plane rides, too.

So, what’s the strategy? Tackle a challenging novel or two? Go for the “comfort food” of escapist reading? A combination of the two?

I vividly remember a Cape Cod vacation four years ago sitting on a pond beach wading through Henry James’ The Ambassadors, day after day. Ultimately a subtly interesting novel in many ways, but difficult and at times boring. Some of the convoluted sentences were longer than the vacation. 🙂

The next year, I switched reading approaches by enjoying two escapist Gorky Park sequels on the plane rides to and from France and during non-sightseeing moments amid two weeks in La Rochelle and Paris. “We’ll always have…Martin Cruz Smith.”

I also “did” escapist during a family-vacation return to Cape Cod this past week, July 17-24. I finished Colleen McCullough’s stellar historical novel Morgan’s Run (which I wrote about last week) and then read much of The Mammoth Hunters — the lengthy third installment of Jean M. Auel’s always-compelling “Earth’s Children” series. (I had recently read the first two novels: The Clan of the Cave Bear and The Valley of Horses.) There’s something very soothing about continuing a book series on vacation; one already has a comfort level with a particular author’s storytelling and characters, even as there’s the excitement of new plot developments.

Of course, few escapist novels are totally escapist. Auel’s series and Morgan’s Run and Martin Cruz Smith’s books have quite a few distressing moments. But they’re escapist in the sense of being very readable and very absorbing, with little mental strain involved in following the plot (even as the novels can also have a good amount of literary value). After all, vacations are for relaxing — at least in part.

Then there’s the comfort of rereading. I haven’t done that on vacation for a while, but remember rereading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix while on a train from Paris to Venice in 2004. That rail ride sure seemed to go fast, but a drawback was concentrating more on J.K. Rowling’s riveting fifth Potter book than on the amazing scenery outside the train window. 🙂 But I did look up from the pages fairly often.

What are your vacation-reading preferences? Challenging, “comfort food,” or both?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — about children’s book characters coming to life in the reopened children’s section of my local library 🙂 — is here.

92 thoughts on “Vacation Reading: Go Easy or Difficult?

  1. I always read two or three books at the same time, so if I get bored, or my mood changes, I always have a couple more that I’m half way into. So I have books and Kindle books going as well. LOL Sometimes it’s a lot but that’s what I’m used to doing. I like books but the Kindle is good for shoving in my bag and it’s great to take on trips, so you have lots of books that don’t weigh anything.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, hitandrun1964! I can see how reading two or three books at a time could be an especially good idea when on vacation. No danger of having to stick with a book you’re not liking enough. 🙂 As for myself, I usually read one novel at a time — a longtime habit I would have difficulty breaking. 🙂 And, yes, taking a Kindle rather than several physical books on trips is certainly lighter!


  2. It’s fun the think about past vacation books. I remember that when I was 21 and Russia was still the Soviet Union, I took the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Nahodka and read “Anna Karenina” along the way–I’d read War and Peace, but no other Tolstoy. It was not exactly light reading and, since I found the heroine unsympathetic, I got bored along the way, but I made it through and was pleased to have done it. Which I guess goes to show that if you have lots of time, it’s a good feeling to use a piece of your vacation to read something substantial, although I think I might have had to abandon The Ambassadors unfinished, Dave!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kim!

      Reading “Anna Karenina” on the train from Moscow to Nahodka — what a great and appropriate experience, even with you having mixed feelings about the novel. I also visited the Soviet Union, and ending up buying and reading Nikolai Ostrovsky’s “How the Steel Was Tempered” there. I had never heard of it until seeing it in a Moscow bookstore. Turned out to be a good but not great novel.

      Late-career Henry James can definitely be challenging. 🙂 But, as you note, vacations can indeed give a person extra time to tackle something like that.


  3. Great post and great comment thread, Dave! I like to read novels which are set in the place I’m visiting if I’m travelling. Alas, I see little of that on the horizon. I should also add that I’m Margaret Atwood’s no.1 fan.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Chris! 🙂 I definitely agree about the comment thread. 🙂

      Terrific point/suggestion about reading books set in the place one is visiting! I’ve done that, but should do that more. Sometimes I do a variation of that by reading a book set in a place I visited right after returning home from that visit.

      Hoping that travel will return to semi-normal by next year.

      As for Margaret Atwood, I also love her work! The novel of hers I read most recently was “The Handmaid’s Tale” sequel “The Testaments,” which I thought was terrific except for the ending seeming a bit rushed.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. First of all, this is a very very interesting post. You have got an awesome blog! I personally feel to go light on vacation reading. Spend most of the time to explore, the book is not going anywhere. Best is to pick up some local literature and devour them later. Best souvenirs, eh?

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I don’t go on vaycay much. I hate leaving the cats.
    Last book I read on a beach was “Bob Dylan Chronicles”. That was a cool read!
    I remember reading “Cat’s Eye” at a resort in Jamaica. Turned me OFF Margret Atwood in a big way.
    I’ve read a lot of Joy Feilding on aeroplanes.
    There you have my vaycay reading resume.
    Also, as you can see, I am still cursed with the WP glitch.
    I’m supposed to be commenting from Art Gowns.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Resa! I know exactly what you mean about how painful it is (for the humans and the cats) when the humans go on vacation. I have gone away once in a while, but I do that less than I would if I didn’t live with a (wonderful) cat. I missed him a LOT last week, and I know he was not pleased despite a great cat-sitter visiting three times a day.

      I really enjoyed reading Joy Fielding’s “Grand Avenue” on your recommendation a few weeks ago. Compelling novel. I can see how reading that author would be appealing on or off planes, and on or not on vacation.

      I liked “Cat’s Eye” and a number of other Atwood novels (“The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Alias Grace,” “The Robber Bride,” etc.). We all have different literary likes and dislikes, and that’s a good thing. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  6. This summer, the staycations are on us – unless the water runs out again- an experience that sent us back to The Grapes of Wrath.
    . UK travel rules keep changing – will that green light trip end with ten days quarantine? Instead, friends are coming to us.
    At a charity bookshop, we bought Ancient Rome, the whole brilliant Falco series, by Lindsey Davis, High school Latin lessons were never like this, but crimes and motives don’t care which century it is. Falco even did his military service in soggy Britannia, slaved in silver mines to expose fraud, and adopted an orphan of the Boudicca uprising. … Shared with our staycation friends, to read after a walk on the Wall. . . Serious reading can wait.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Esther!

      Yes, this is kind of a fraught summer. The question of doing a “staycation” or go-away vacation as COVID has lessened from a year ago yet is still very much around, with the Delta variant and all. And then there’s worsening climate change, as you allude to with your drought reference.

      Nice (and not that surprising) when certain books are much more interesting than some high school courses. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Dave,

    Your timing, as is so often the case, is impeccable. I’m off on a short trip next week and have no idea what books to take. I think I’d rather go light and easy, however I have a vivid recollection of being away and discovering the brilliance of Wilkie Collins in The Woman in White. There will be lots of relaxation time during the upcoming trip, so I am tempted to go with a lengthy tome that needs to be read for hours at a time. The downside to that of course is I might end up with an 800-page novel that I’m just not enjoying. I think I also want to take a hard copy book as I generally read from a kindle when I’m at work or out and about, however my library doesn’t have an available copy of the next book on my TBR which I think is bad planning on their part. Surely my holiday is more important than giving it to the person who got there first!

    But short or long, is there anything better than being able to spend a few days lazing around with an enjoyable book. Thanks, Dave, for creating even more anticipation for my upcoming trip!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susan! Glad that, on occasion, we seem to be coincidentally on the same wavelength. 🙂

      I hope you enjoy your short trip, and good luck with your reading choices!

      Like you, I absolutely loved “The Woman in White” — which could make any vacation worth taking if one is reading that sublime Wilkie Collins novel. A book with many painful moments, but sublime.

      “…short or long, is there anything better than being able to spend a few days lazing around with an enjoyable book?” — can’t argue with that. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Henry James while on vacation…oh dear. I’d need a vacation after that vacation. “Some of the convoluted sentences were longer than the vacation.” This made me laugh out loud. So true. I commend your perseverance.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, J.D. — and what a great line (“I’d need a vacation after that vacation” 😂 )!

      Reading Henry James on vacation was definitely a one-time thing; I made sure not to repeat that experience. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  9. My good intentions compel me to tote books along I ought to read, but my self-knowledge allows me to bring books I’m more likely to enjoy.

    Every once in a while, usually after exhausting the latter category, I find myself deep into a book out of the former, pleased with the book, and myself for having done, for a change, what I intended.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, jhNY! Smart to be prepared for either eventuality! And, yes, if the “lighter” reading is done while you’re still away, the “ought to read” books are there to hopefully be enjoyed. Speaking of the “e” word, I enjoyed reading your comment. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. As we don’t intend to go on long trips anymore for ecological reasons, Dave, I will probably not read books while we travel, but read them at home in a deckchair, if it doesn’t rain! However, I always liked to read and learn about the countries and cultures we went to visit. This summer I will go on with the very challenging “I am Pilgrim” by Terry Hayes. Thank you very much for your book proposals and I have “The Clan of the Cave Bear ” already on my list!
    Enjoy the summer!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Martina!

      “I always liked to read and learn about the countries and cultures we went to visit” — such a good thing to have done. 🙂

      An excellent point about how environmentally harmful long trips can be. I have still taken several in recent years, with some guilt. I try to tell myself I’m being somewhat environmental in other ways — being vegan, living in an apartment, having a hybrid car, etc.

      The only “problem” with reading “The Clan of the Cave Bear” was liking it so much that I have vowed to read all five of the long sequels. 🙂

      Hope you’re enjoying your summer, too!

      Liked by 2 people

      • I think you are right, Dave, that everybody tries “to improve” in his/her way! However, I certainly also have some guilt!!
        Thank you for your “preparation” concerning “The Clan of the Cave Bear”:)
        Thanks for your good wishes!

        Liked by 2 people

          • See bitcoin and its blockchain for details. Every single day this dark currency uses the energy equivalent of what all of Denmark uses daily, with nothing to show for it but bitcoins and the blockchain. Every single day– till the day comes, too soon, when that’s not enough energy for bitcoin’s daily uses. Today, bitcoin rose to $40,000 in ‘value’ per each coin.

            Watch this sector for the next financial meltdown, but till then, watch all that energy go up in smoke for nothing of actual value, as all the while the bitcoiners scour the globe for the cheapest electricity for sale– too often emanating out of coal-fired generators.

            The rise of cryptocurrencies, as the frequency and scope in the face of climate emergencies increase, has left me less than hopeful about the future and/or the species.

            In the face of this growing profligate waste and misdirection of energy, as well as the resistance in politics and business to addressing the climate change issue seriously, I guess it might make one feel better by denying oneself vacations, etc., for the environment, but I don’t think it really makes much practical difference.

            Liked by 2 people

            • I don’t really understand bitcoin and such, so it was very interesting to read your comment, jhNY! I hadn’t realized the environmental ramifications connected with cryptocurrencies.

              And, yes, with the rich “powers that be” (people and corporations) doing such bad things to the environment, what “average” people do doesn’t make a huge amount of difference. But still we try (some of us). 🙂

              Liked by 2 people

              • As an additional comment on our species re bitcoin, I learned something while attempting locate what I thought was merely a haunting line and scene in Val Lewton’s “The Seventh Victim”, a quirky and even mystical RKO movie made on a shoestring in the midst of WW2:

                “I run to death, and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday.”

                Turns out it’s the first line of a John Donne poem, “Holy Sonnet I”.

                Liked by 2 people

  11. Hi Dave, I don’t like to read very complex and difficult novels if I am very busy and stressed at work. I find I just don’t have the ability to concentrate on such heavy going books when my mind is so over active. I often keep these books to read during my holiday periods. I have read many classics while on holiday and I’ve also read some doorstopper books like Stephen King’s The Stand and IT and Morgan’s Run which was one of my holiday reads too.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Robbie!

      It makes total sense that very challenging novels can be difficult to fully concentrate on when one is busy and stressed from work, and that those books can thus be ideally read during holiday periods. And, as you say, long novels — whether difficult or not so difficult — are also good for vacations. Of course, difficult and/or long novels can be read anytime when work is not TOO overwhelming. 🙂

      When Stephen King decides to go long, he can be VERY long!

      Liked by 3 people

      • Oh yes, Mr King certainly can write a telephone directory. I really do enjoy certain of his books thought and have read them more than once. I listen to more complex books as audio books and that enables me to ‘read’ them at a slower pace and appreciate them better. I have Dante’s Divine Comedy coming up soon and I am looking forward to it.

        Liked by 2 people

        • “Mr King certainly can write a telephone directory” — great line, Robbie! 😂

          I’m also a fan of much of King’s work — including his underrated and subtle (for him) “From a Buick 8.”

          Good luck with Dante’s “Divine Comedy”! I’ve never read it. 😦

          Liked by 2 people

          • Thank you, Dave. I like the books written under the name of Richard Bachman very much. There is a lot of human psychology in them, in particular, The Long Walk, The Running Man, and Shawshank Redemption. The Breathing Method, included in his Different Seasons collection captivated me. When I read The Tell-Tale Heart by Poe, I thought King’s inspiration for The Breathing Method might have come for that story.

            Liked by 2 people

            • You’re right, Robbie — Stephen King has written great things under more than one name, and his work is more diverse than some people give him credit for.

              You’re also right that King was influenced by Poe — as well as by Shirley Jackson and H.P. Lovecraft, among others.

              Liked by 2 people

  12. As a general rule, I didn’t read anything while on vacation. I’ve read so many books in my life (other than a few reading-drought periods) that I took a vacation from reading and gave myself up totally to experiences and the people I traveled with. When I toured most of Europe during the summer of ‘69, I only bought two books, “Mansfield Park” (in Munich) and Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice” (in Stockholm). Quite the juxtaposition! Oh, I also bought, though I didn’t read, “The Collected Works of William Shakespeare” in a used bookstore, also in Stockholm. Since I was traveling all summer with only one medium-size canvas suitcase, not the smartest thing to be toting around, but at least we were in the last few weeks of the trip!🙂 And I still have that book on my shelves today.

    The one major exception to that rule was what I call “My Barnes & Noble Vacation” from about 15 years ago, following a very stressful period at work. I stayed at home for an entire week, went to B&N every morning when it opened, had a giant cup of coffee and a scone in their Cafe, bought a book and then went home and spent the rest of the day reading (and finishing) it. It was lovely! Strangely enough, I don’t remember all the books that I read, except for “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold and “Small Wonder,” a book of essays by Barbara Kingsolver.

    Of course, as you may remember, I went out on permanent disability in 2010 and then retired in 2012, so now I’m on vacation all the time! Though I haven’t been anywhere, unless you count my moving three times, which I don’t, though living in Indiana now is certainly different from being near Philadelphia! Anyway, now I can read pretty much whenever I want, which is wonderful.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lit!

      I can see how taking a reading break makes sense when on vacation — especially a vacation heavy on sightseeing. Still, I’ve squeezed in some reading here and there even on trips like that — with the amount partly depending on whether I was alone or, later, with family. 🙂

      Great book memories from your 1969 Europe trip! And wonderful that you still have that edition of “The Collected Works of William Shakespeare”! (After laboriously toting that tome around. 🙂 😦 )

      That “Barnes & Noble Vacation” sounds fabulous! A great recuperative break from a stressful job.

      Last but not least, nice that you can now read whenever you want. One of the great benefits of retirement!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Dave. I didn’t get a chance to respond to last week’s column. You did mention “The House of Mirth,” along with a few others I’ve read, but Lily Bart stands out to me as the epitome of a much beleaguered character. She is a fascinating woman, whose only real “crime” is to enjoy gambling a bit too much and to be too trusting of those she thought were her friends, as well as New York society in general. In the tragic end to her life, she shows she is much more honorable than, and morally superior to, those others of her class in society. I often see that scene play out in my mind at the end of the novel and the film adaption, starring the wonderful Gillian Anderson. Such a sad ending!

        Liked by 2 people

        • REALLY well said, Kat Lit! So true that Lily Bart is majorly beleaguered. And, as you note, she has flaws but also has a very honorable side — for instance, not wanting to marry just for financial security even though she desperately needs money. She is indeed the most honorable person in a sea of rich/society people who are not moral or at best sort of mixed when it comes to integrity.

          Liked by 1 person

  13. I never did divide my reading between “vacation reading” and “normal reading times.” It seems a pointless and artificial distinction. That said, my ideal vacation book would be an alternate universe Stephen King book from his early days that I’d never heard of, but that fell into my hands one day at the park when I was sitting beside a mysterious old man…

    — Catxman

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Catxman! I hear you — a lot of people’s vacation reading is similar to their non-vacation reading. In my case, I might tend to do a little “lighter” reading when away, but have still read some deep works over the years while on vacation. (And while not on vacation.)

      I like your Stephen King scenario!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I remember on a vacation to Shelter Island several years ago reading, “The Mermaid” chair by Sue Monk Kidd. Beautiful story set,also on an island.

    The drive,then ferry to Shelter Island was about 2 hours, but with the escape read and isolation which I was agreeable to (went after Labor Day,was quiet) I really felt far away.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Michele!

      That’s an evocative and well-described memory of you reading “The Mermaid.” Sounds like it was the right story at the right time in the right setting. 🙂

      I liked Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees” a lot, so I’m not surprised she has written other excellent works.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Oh, you have brought up so many wonderful memories with this post, Dave. I remember reading “Salt – A World History” by Mark Kurlansky on the plane to Scotland. Yes, it is non-fiction, but the stories held in these pages were amazing. Here’s a quote that you will appreciate: “In every age, people are certain that only the things they have deemed valuable have true value. The search for love and the search for wealth are always the two best stories. But while a love story is timeless, the story of a quest for wealth, given enough time, will always seem like the vain pursuit of a mirage.” And then there the time when we were attending a Italian language school in Italy. Thomas was around 12 – 13. We took turns reading “Kidnapped” by R.L.Stevenson out loud into the late hours and would be yawning through verb conjugations the next day. And then there was a time when I was 18, the summer that I was on an archeological expedition in Northern Manitoba with a team from University of Winnipeg. (Part of their study grant was that they hired a local.) Anyway, that was my first introduction to Jane Goodall which began my life-long journey of environmental responsibility. And of course, those Harlequin romance summer days with my sister Sarah. Every book, every narrative, became part of who I became. It seems that we are continually evolving and books are a catalyst for challenging us to pause, to think, to respond.

    Liked by 6 people

  16. I seem to recall that Harry Potter book releases coincided with the summer holidays. Placing a pre-order and hoping the postman arrived before we were due to leave caused no amount of anxiety I can tell you! Thankfully Rowling and Royal Mail never let me down and her books always arrived at least by the morning of departure day. Thank goodness! A guaranteed comfort read for sure.
    I sometimes try to tailor my reading to the destination, by author or subject. Not always successfully – a Russian and a German author accompanied me on an Italian holiday three years ago – but the books were excellent so of course it didn’t matter at all.
    My husband doesn’t always plan that well ahead when it comes to holiday reading so I have to be able to whip out a novel I think he’s going to like after he’s finished the latest Cornwell or Childs blockbuster. Now I have a Kindle so the angst of packing enough books will no longer blight me….

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Sarah!

      I’m sure you’re right about some of those “Harry Potter” release dates. Perfect summer/vacation reading indeed! Glad the books always arrived in time for you. Generally, it was SO exciting back then waiting for the latest “HP” installment.

      Great point about tailoring one’s reading to the destination for some (even if not all) trips.

      And Kindle does make for a lighter load when going away!

      Liked by 3 people

  17. ‘Some of the convoluted sentences were longer than the vacation.’ Love it. Brill post. I always found it depended on where you were going. We were great ones for holing up in the middle of nowhere with the kids. I mean seriously middle of nowhere where they were used to dragging their little bits and bobs and fav toys along deserted beaches and up hillsides. As this was before kindle etc, or indeed ipads, these cases and ours were pretty packed with games and books. My choices were always door stoppers in terms of novels. Then I’d run out and just read whatever some other middle of nowhere-ist had jettisoned from the homewards journey.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Shehanne! 🙂

      Excellent point that one’s choice of reading matter can depend on where one is going — the middle of nowhere (as you note), a more populated place, etc.

      There must have been some interesting reading serendipity when you read books previous people had left behind.

      And, yes, before Kindle, things got rather heavy if one wanted to read a number of books while away. Luckily, we drove to our vacation spot last week, so I could just tuck the large Colleen McCullough and Jean M. Auel novels into the car rather than into luggage. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

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