How to make your holiday reading work for you!

How’s that for a clickbaity title?

There are many topics on which I can be bossy and dogmatic, but people who have been on holiday with me will confirm that there are few topics on which I’m more dogmatic than the importance of getting your holiday reading right. This may be annoying, but there is a good reason for my dogma and the reason is this: I (virtually) always get my holiday reading right – I take books that I know I will love reading, and I am proved correct. Other people I’m on holiday with often get their reading wrong, and spend a week or two pretending to enjoy their books, whilst putting them down every few minutes to go and look at a lizard next to the swimming pool. I can tell they are not enjoying their holiday books, but they are often too embarrassed or stubborn to admit this.

There was an early phase in my relationship with my husband during which he took a book called Democracy in Europe on holiday with him every year, and failed to finish reading it every year. He eventually did finish reading it, and confirmed that it was a good book. But this did not invalidate my original point: that he should never have taken it on holiday.

So, it’s not rocket science is it? What this conclusively proves is that I am right and you should all listen to me. I can’t imagine how this might be interpreted as bossy; it is simply a matter of the application of science. And in return, I will be happy to take your advice in other areas of life about which I know less than you do, whatever those areas may be.

Ah, I hear you say, but what if I don’t like the same sorts of books that you, Jenny, do? That does not matter, because as you will see, these are general all-encompassing rules that can be applied to you differently, whatever your tastes.

Here be the rules:

1. RISK.  How much of a risk you are willing to take on your holiday reading should be flexed according to two factors:

a. Are you going on holiday to Britain, Ireland, the USA or another country where you read the local language and will be staying close to a bookshop?

b. Do you have an e-reader and reliable wifi at your holiday destination?

If the answer to either or both of those questions is yes, then there’s good news: you can feel free to take more risks with your holiday books. It doesn’t really matter too much if some or all of your holiday reading choices turn out to be disappointing, because you can just buy some new and different books while you’re there. However, there is still an opportunity cost and a financial cost attached to taking bad books on holiday so, to be honest, you’re probably still best off following all the rules below anyway.

2. SELF-KNOWLEDGE. Be honest with yourself about who you are and what you like to read. Because I don’t know you, I don’t know what you like to read. But I do know that my husband spent many years thinking he was the sort of person who liked to read Democracy in Europe on holiday, when actually I knew all along that he was the sort of person who liked to read Robert Harris on holiday. Stop caring about everything other than your holiday reading pleasure. Don’t care about looking clever around the pool (you are clever), don’t care about ‘having time to read books that I’ll never get around to in my normal life’ (because, guess what, the reason you never got to those books in normal life is not because you don’t have time, it’s because you’ve never made time because you don’t care enough about reading them.) Sitting in 32 degree heat with people splashing around in a swimming pool in front of you is not the time to concentrate on that 800-page experimental novel you never got round to reading on your commute.

3. GRIP. You may think from the above that what I’m getting at is that you should read just ‘easy light reading’ books on holiday or just read commercial fiction rather than literary fiction. But you would be wrong. I have read some great intelligent non-fiction on holiday, I have read some great literary novels. The key factor is grip. Think about the books that have gripped you most throughout your life – one of these books may have been Democracy in Europe. That’s fine, in which case you should definitely pack more books by Larry Siedentop for your next holiday. The thing is to identify what are the factors that make a book gripping, for you. And then once you’ve identified these things, try as hard as you can to find them in similar books. If you have no idea what these other books are, ask a well-informed literary friend, your local bookseller, or use the Amazon ‘also bought’ function for ideas.

4. BEWARE THE OVER-HYPED DEBUT. And I say this with great self-knowledge. I work in publishing and therefore I love an over-hyped debut more than the next person. At any other time of the year, I will fall on an over-hyped debut with glee and anticipation. But on holiday, the over-hyped debut is the biggest risk of all. The fact that 9 desperate editors offered six-figure sums for a book in the week before Frankfurt is not a sign that you will enjoy reading it on your holiday.

Authors you already know that you love are the safest of all and should be first in your suitcase, authors you know that other people have loved and bought in their hundreds of thousands reduce the risk somewhat (although not entirely – see point below). An over-hyped debut is highly untested and therefore high risk. You may get lucky, but if you don’t, then don’t say I didn’t warn you.

5. BE CAREFUL WITH RECOMMENDATIONS. Recommendations can be great. A recommendation from the right person, thrusting a book into your hands – or emailing a link to your iPad – can be a delight. But how do you know who to trust? Beware recommendations from: people you don’t know on twitter, literary prize committees and beware most of all the recommendations in broadsheet ‘summer reading’ round-ups. All of the above have agendas themselves and therefore cannot be trusted to deliver a truly fun holiday read. I would suggest that you can trust one sort of person only – a person who likes the same sorts of books as you, and who says, with unreserved enthusiasm ‘this book is brilliant and I know that you will love it’. Watching out for the exact wording is vital because even usually trustworthy deliverers of good holiday reads – like my sister – sometimes say things like ‘I’m desperate for you to read this so that we can discuss it’, which invariably means ‘I’m desperate for you to read this so we can discuss how massively disappointing the twist turns out to be’. Interrogate your recommender at great length.

6. VARIETY MATTERS. This may seem contradictory with some of the above but I’ll put it out there anyway. Ensure that your holiday reading contains sufficient variety. Even if you have identified yourself as the sort of person who loves reading psychological thrillers on holiday, I’d still be careful about taking 8 of them away with you. I went on a 2-week holiday to Corsica in the year 2000, when the comic women’s fiction market was still at its peak. And having read several very good but somewhat similar books in this genre, I was delighted to find an old copy of Jose Saramago’s Blindness in the holiday villa. I would normally consider literary fiction in translation the highest of holiday risks. But it a brilliant and unputdownable book, and I was in need of a break from Mr Right hilarity.

7. THE SLOWER YOU READ, THE MORE IMPORTANT THESE RULES ARE. This is the rule of rules. In the days when I got through five books in a week on holiday, one or two dodgy books mattered less. Post children, I can usually manage three average-length novels in a week, or five in a fortnight. If you are a slower reader, or you’re going on a holiday where you won’t have a chance to read much, you may read even fewer than this so it makes it even more necessary that each one holds its own.

You only get a small amount of holiday a year and you only get one chance to pick your books. As Jack says to Rose in Titanic: make it count.

SOME IDEAS

If anyone’s interested in some actual book tips, here are some books that I remember reading on holiday with great fondness:

THE WOMAN IN WHITE BY WILKIE COLLINS – This book for me is the absolute apex of holiday reading joy. It is a literary classic, and it is also a properly gripping thriller. I read it on a holiday which was in every other way disappointing: crap house in the Dordogne, no beach (obvs I could have predicted that, it being the Dordogne, but I didn’t fully think it through), crap weather, I got hayfever for the first time ever and I was at that point vegetarian and so couldn’t find anything to eat in a local restaurant that wasn’t a cheese omelette. But this book made my holiday, and I recommend it to all.

THE BIGGEST GAME IN TOWN BY AL ALVAREZ – I’m not someone who believes that just because you’re going to Kefalonia, you have to take Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. But I read this book in Las Vegas, and if you have any interest at all in poker, Vegas or reading about one or both, this is ace (geddit?).

EMILY GIFFIN or JENNIFER WEINER I’ve read too many by both on too many holidays to list here but it’s very hard to go wrong. People who think commercial women’s fiction isn’t also clever should be beaten over the head with a copy of one of Giffin’s or Weiner’s novels until they see the light. Here is a photo of my most joyous flight ever, when the baby fell asleep on me and let me read Jennifer Weiner’s Who Do You Love? all the way home from Mallorca.

nath on a plane

AFTER THE PARTY BY LISA JEWELL This book has a special place in my holiday reading heart, because it is about previously carefree and childless people coping with the changes wrought by having children. And I read it on my first holiday post-children which was… somewhat different to what I was used to. This book made me feel that I wasn’t the only one, and that’s what all the very best books should do.

BLINDNESS BY JOSE SARAMAGO See above. Seriously, it’s outstanding. If you think my taste is too commercial for you, then you can ignore the other suggestions and just pick this. It’s a political parable, but with the plot and pace of a dystopian thriller.

Happy holidays! I will report back from my own in late August with any new and unmissable tips.