Reading on the Road

  • By Anne Cassidy
  • May 9, 2024

The particular joy of vacation books.

Reading on the Road

The train trip was long to begin with — more than 18 hours from Athens to Belgrade — and delays were making it even longer. But I had good company as we chugged through Serbia: Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. It’s a doorstop of a book, but I was learning about the country I was visiting, which was called Yugoslavia back then.

That’s a long-ago example of reading for travel, a habit I’ve kept up through the years. But lately, I’ve come to appreciate reading while traveling, the randomness and joy of dipping into whatever books come my way. Books that may have nothing to do with a destination but have everything to do with enjoying myself while I’m there.

Take our recent vacation: I’d already queued up an e-memoir of our destination, New Leaves from a Madeira Garden, by Tony Powell, and the early pages were promising. But we’d no sooner arrived than my husband’s cousin Dan, whom we were visiting, handed me Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. He’d just finished it, he said, and I could have his copy.

The life and loves of two young videogame designers had nothing whatsoever to do with a Portuguese island off the coast of Africa, but I dove gratefully into the novel each evening and read it, jet-lagged, in the wee hours, too.

After I inhaled that book, Dan lent me another, Small Mercies. Somehow, I’d never read a Dennis Lehane novel, but I ripped through it. It was set in Boston during the 1974 busing crisis — again, not what I would’ve chosen as vacation reading — but weeks later, it burns brightly in my mind.

Here were two books I wouldn’t have picked — and couldn’t have packed; I had no room for them in my suitcase — but enjoyed just the same.

One of the most surprising and abundant sources of random vacation reads I ever found was in a Peace Corps workstation in Benin, West Africa, where I was visiting my daughter. The place was spilling over with books; there was even a ladder to reach the topmost shelves. I picked up Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and read them by headlamp since the places we bunked had no electricity. Ten years later, I can still remember the crazy plot twists of Gone Girl and the mosquito net under which I read it.

Reading while traveling is reading with abandon, reading early and late because what else are you going to do when your flight is delayed or the bus doesn’t come?

Reading while traveling is the exact opposite of reading at home. In my regular life, reading time is rationed and parceled. I sneak in a few pages at bedtime, while riding the train, or in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. Somehow, I’ve convinced myself that reading is the dessert of life, not its meat and potatoes (or tofu and quinoa).

But all that goes away on vacation, when desserts are consumed throughout the day because those calories don’t count and because, well, vacations are themselves one big dessert.  

When you travel, you always have an excuse to read, whether it’s listening with an app, scrolling through an e-book, or turning pages the old-fashioned way. And — this is important — there are fewer distractions. Only once did I try to watch BritBox in Madeira, and I quickly learned it wasn’t available there. Back to a novel.

Reading while traveling, like travel itself, shakes me out of my routine, gives me perspective, reminds me not just that there’s a big world out there, but that it’s filled with books I might otherwise miss. They may show up at an airport newsstand or in a hotel giveaway pile — or somebody might hand one to me.

Reading while traveling reminds me not only to read more but to read differently. To be open to all genres, to read with abandon all the time. And speaking of time, I have a few free hours this afternoon…

Anne Cassidy has been published in many national magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Christian Science Monitor. She blogs daily at “A Walker in the Suburbs.”

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