As part of our first-ever summer reading special, AA Gill writes about the pleasures of reading on holiday.
What do you pack? Everything, just in case? Virtually nothing, because you don’t want to hump a case? There is something you will take, whether you go light or laden. You’ll take a book. It’ll probably be a specially chosen book, a book that fits and marks the journey. For some people it’s the same book every year. This year I’m taking Anna Karenina to the Dolomites. Last year I took her to the Dalmatian coast, but she didn’t like it, and the year before that, we hiked through Umbria. We started off well but I left her in a café in Assisi. Next year we might go to St Petersburg, but maybe that’ll bring back uncomfortable memories.
I always take the same book, or actually one of two books. I alternate between Herodotus and the Icelandic sagas, and I know that sounds pretentious and the sort of thing that students say to impress their tutors, but really there is an intellectual, practical reason.They are both books that can be dipped into and have small but intense narratives that you can read over and over, like when waiting at a bush airfield for a lost aeroplane, or caught on a riverbank by bad weather, sleepless in a tent. They are endlessly diverting, but they’re also familiar, which is comforting.
I like them because in very different ways, and from opposite ends of the Continent, they are the birth of the Western tradition. Herodotus, called the father of history by Cicero, is also the father of lies, which might be appropriate as the secular patron of travel writers. He collected stories in a systematic way, not just for themselves but as a broader narrative. They tell of the Persian empire and the wars with Greece. The Icelandic sagas are a collection of stories written in the Middle Ages that are memorable not just for their observation of the everyday, but for the direct and simple way they are written. They are the bright, flickering start of a literary tradition that came about on the very edge of the civilised world. Herodotus imagined that he was writing about the entire world. The anonymous authors of the chronicles knew that they were set in the attic at the top of the world.
Both these books are travellers’ tales. They make the parochial mystical, incantatory and iridescent. I never read either of them at home, but when I’m away they remind me intensely of home, and my roots and my heritage, and what I have to live up to as a writer.
Why books should be such a natural accompaniment to travel is odd, but airport bookshops make a great deal of money out of that oddity. Newpapers print long lists of holiday reading. People say they’re going away to lie on a beach and read, although reading is the most uncomfortable and unsatisfactiory thing you can do on a beach. Far easier to read at home in an armchair. And books themselves don’t change with travel. A book itself has the ability to transport you without the expense of a ticket or having to take your slippers off. Why would you want to take Bridget Jones all the way to the Maldives just to be whisked back to London?
And yet there is something about carrying this little paper package of our culture that is as much a talisman as a diversion. I don’t like reading books about the places I’m going to. I don’t want to confuse my impression of a place with the simultaneous observations of someone else. It’s like trying to listen to two bits of music at once. I use guidebooks sparingly, but when I get home I love to read about places I’ve been to, to be reminded, to compare insights.
There is a great affinity between the open road and the pen. Travellers are drawn to write and writers to travel. There is a natural bond between a story and a journey. They follow the same path: a beginning, a middle and a dénouement. Both have moments of disappointment and elation and hopefully neither is straightforward. In the rhythms of spoken English, the iambic pentameter, the five beats to a line, there is the rhythm of your heart. It is also the rhythm of walking.
I have a suspicion that English is so particularly rich in travel writing not simply because it comes from an island and an empire but because the journey is implicit in the language itself. The rhythm and its emphasis, its vocabulary that seems to be so evenly distributed over the hard words of precise description and the illustrative and alliterative nuanced words of emotion. I am aware that neither of the books I habitually travel with is originally in English, but a certain sort of Englishman can’t imagine setting out from home without a notebook that he will one day turn into a thin volume of wistful reminiscences, or more likely the first of a number of thin volumes of collected anthropological thoughts.
The English speakers may have done monstrous and embarrassing things in the world, but they have also elevated and commemorated it in a canon of words that will surely remain glorious long after the peccadillos and the spite of the past fall into anecdotage.
I am going to leave you with a list of travel books, not to travel with but to be read as holidays in their own right. The trouble with lists is that they lead to terrible esprit de l’escalier. I know I shall wake in the middle of the night going, “Christ, why didn’t I put Henry Morton Stanley in there?”
As a rule, writers who travel make better books than travellers who write. In no particular order, there’s:
Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44; Life on the Mississippi, or The Innocents Abroad by Samuel L Clemens/Mark Twain; Kim by Rudyard Kipling; Johnson and Boswell’s A Journey to the Western Isles.
Best read together: The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, and The Iliad, translated by Christopher Logue as War Music.
I just picked up my eldest son from the airport at the end of his post-school travels. He said proudly that he’d gone round the world in six months without anything electric, nothing to plug in, no computer, no phone, no iPod.
“What did you do?”
“I read, Dad.”
“Really?” I’d never seen him with a book. “What did you read?”
“Oh, lots, but particularly Fear and Loathing, Hunter S Thompson. It’s brilliant, really great. He writes a bit like you.”
I wish. But there you are. After 15 years of mainly pointless education, it takes a journey to make him pick up a book. So let’s add Fear and Loathing to the list.
WORDS AA GILL
This article is from the January 2013 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.