Travel and reading: vacations in pages
Is it still a vacation when you go somewhere you used to live? For the first time in two years, I did a bit of traveling, and it was weird. Weird to be on airplanes. Weird to remember all the awkward dancing of cramming into tiny places with strangers, a weirdness made exponentially worse by pandemic anxiety. Weird to get on the metro, weird to go back to a place I hadn’t been to since the start of the pandemic. All the oddities of the past two years, compacted and intensified in my old house, now away from home.
Traveling is reading time. All that in between, the interspaces of planes and airports and trains and every other mode of transportation: Ever since I was old enough to read, I’ve filled these places with pages. Thousands of miles on Greyhound buses, moving between parents, equals hundreds of books read. Flying home from college, reading completely different things than what I had read in class. Commuting in the subway with a carefully held book in one hand. (Anyone who’s ever commuted to New York knows how many ways you can find to hold a book and turn the pages with one hand, if you have to. And often, you have to.)
But travel reading hasn’t remained unchanged in recent years either.
What we want in the books we take with us when we go on a trip, to the airport or to the train station, is as varied as our travel preferences. Window, driveway, observation car. Escape, education, break with the norm. What I wanted was to fall into something, to relive the experience of reading wanderers on a flight and forgetting how long it was (the book or the flight). Reading a book while traveling can mean forever associating the book with movement; returning to a travel reading can, faintly and remotely, recall this experience. american gods always travels to Australia, for me, as contradictory as that sounds. When I reread it, two landscapes overlap in my mind.
But on this trip, I skipped over chunks of books, unsettled, and watched two James Bond movies. (Spectrum was awful. no time to die made less sense, but it was still better. Q is perfect, no notes.) I had loaded my iPad with library books and e-books and yet I couldn’t tell you much about what they were. A wacky space opera with too much infodumping. A sweet fantasy in a world with a cruel climate. Something involving a boat. Scan a page, sigh, get dizzy in the haze of white noise, try something else. Repeat until you are frustrated.
Is holiday reading still an escape? Is travel reading the same as vacation reading? My partner and I call trips where we stay in one place “vacation” and trips where we roam around trying to see as many places as possible “travel”. I tend to read while traveling and watch TV on vacation – at night, when I’ve traveled 12 miles in an unfamiliar city and just want to sip a glass of wine in my pajamas and hang out with friends from the space.
This time, I didn’t want to do either. I wanted the stories to download into my brain and collide, seeping through osmosis. The concept of holiday reading, to my fantasy-obsessed brain, never made much sense beyond practice. (I choose travel books with simple criteria: how much space do I have and how many hours on the plane do I have to fill?) Every fantasy novel is a journey to a strange and new place, an escape – often an escape to a world where perhaps justice is possible, where perhaps change still seems like something a small group of passionate rebels can bring about. Escape is not the existence of dragons, the presence of magic, the idea of clear and obvious (and defeatable) evil. The escape is that, at the end of the book, something is different. The world has changed. The world seems to be changing, and for the better. I don’t want to be distracted, entertained, spoon-fed. I want to be somewhere else, believing that something else is possible.
I want that no matter where I am when I turn the pages, but it’s different when you’re away from home, especially on the kind of trip where it feels like something should be different when you get back. Fantasy is full of departures, journeys, journeys to places the protagonists never thought they would see; they return changed, grown, irrevocably different. Vacations don’t usually do that. Travel certainly can. But we are not saving the world. We’re just trying to see more, avoid exhaustion, take a break, experience something different.
It’s easy to overreact to a holiday read, the same way it’s easy to overreact to a holiday read. But good books can offer some of the same things: the thrill of Go, to move, to see something new, to be in an old place in a new way. Maybe you have read chronic city and The city we have become in New York, or pick up Francesca Lia Block in Los Angeles. There are Summer in the City of Roses and geek love for Portland more pounds than I can count for England (maybe start with Crown Sorcerer), the Magic or Madness series by Justine Larbalestier for Sydney, We ride on sticks if you are heading towards the Massachusetts coast, Brunette girl in the ring for another vision of Toronto. You could make a whole atlas of these places. (Sometimes I feel like it.)
Fantasy has its own geography, but it also borrows from ours; you could build road trips around the towns where the magic happens in the books. Some are fictional, of course, but you know the types. You know where there are fairies under sidewalks and trolls under bridges, far from the fast food chains that try to make every landscape look the same. You can find these places anywhere, even if you can’t move right now: culverts under quiet roads, arched trees in a quiet stretch of street. Learning the names of trees is a little magic, like the smell of rain on dry sidewalks.
Maybe traveling isn’t in the cards right now – and if it is, maybe it feels weirder and even more uncomfortable than ever. Take a comfort book, if you have one; take sounds of comfort, smells of comfort, visit places of comfort. I don’t want to go anywhere for a while, but I want a vacation. It might feel like nothing more than standing under a wisteria archway down the block, listening to Tori Amos through my headphones. Can you take a vacation in the familiar? Would it look the same as usual? Will it be read as it always does?
Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon and spends as much time as possible in the woods. Sometimes she talks about books on Twitter.