In a recent review in the Guardian, a novel was described as "the perfect Dordogne read," a very Guardian expression and sentiment. The Dordogne being that part of France favoured as a holiday destination by the British lettered middle classes (who, moi?), and reading being what such folk like to do on holiday. Or at least, intend to do. Reflecting on my own holiday reading, I realise that I rarely end up reading the books I take away on holiday. Sometimes because I simply prefer gazing into space to squinting at a sun-blasted page, but quite often because I am ambushed by some unexpected book left behind by someone else, found on those curiously random bookshelves you find in holiday lets.
A book, especially an unexpected book from an unexplored corner of the reading world, can colour your mood for an entire holiday. Sometimes, I have found myself anxious to return from a pleasant real-life excursion just to re-engage with some story, like an old man fretful of missing "my programme" on the TV. One year a discarded Andy McNab thriller, of all things, had me gripped by the throat most of one whole holiday week. As well as a bracing immersion into a single-minded world of Glocks and gollocks, its compelling simplicity convinced me that I could sit down when I got home and write a bestseller myself. I would become rich, and then lead a life of my own leisurely choosing ever after. This was actually a more exciting fantasy than the book itself.
Now I come to think of it, such infantile musings are often the stuff of my vacation reveries. After all, the most powerful side-effect of any decent holiday is to cast a strong, unflattering light onto the other 95% of your year. It's a tantalizing glimpse of your "if only" life. I suppose that's why France is full of farmhouses, converted but unoccupied most of the year by British owners who have let such fantasies get the better of them.
The most curiously reflexive form of holiday fantasy reading is, of course, travel writing. There you are, sprawled somewhere moderately exotic, filling your head with someone else's thoughts about somewhere even more exotic. I find this too confusing to cope with. My partner, being a practical person, does like to gather and read local guides, and make notes of possible outings, but for some reason I find this confusing, too, though I do enjoy reading those tourist pamphlets which have clearly been translated into English by the local Head of Tourism's ten-year-old daughter. However, last year I did find myself reading someone's abandoned copy of Bill Bryson's travels in Australia towards the end of the holiday. I discovered that Bryson can make me weep with laughter, and the episode with the dogs in a Sydney park nearly hospitalised me.
But I've never yet found out what happened to Bill further North, as I had to abandon the book half way through when the time came to go home. It is one of the unwritten rules that, although you may leave your own books behind, you should not take "native" books home. I usually leave my more boring unread choices behind, especially if this is their second or even third outing (a W.G. Sebald, for example, that I finally abandoned in France), mainly to relieve the burden on our own shelves and to save myself the trouble of ever reading the thing, but also to add a touch of mysterious tone to the rack of thrillers and bodice-rippers. Indeed, given the ongoing accommodation problem with books in our house, I'm beginning to wonder whether it would be worth filling a couple of boxes with books to dump wherever we go next, maybe replacing them with a return cargo of wine, like ship's ballast.