Vacation Reading

As far as I'm concerned, there are only three necessary decisions to make when it comes to vacation: Beach or pool? SPF 15 or 30? And which books should I bring? More important even than my destination, are the books I'm taking with me.

These books will become my vacation soundtrack, and my ultimate contentment and satisfaction will be determined not by the choices made once I arrive -- swim or nap, red or white, sleep late or sleep even later -- but by the choices I make before I've even left home.

My process is always the same. I start with a practical "gatherer" strategy. I visit our guest room where the books we haven't read yet live. A few of these books will start my list. But unconvinced that I've found the perfect vacation reading, I will continue and quickly adopt a "hunter" strategy.

I go to work and browse the bookshelves. Ask my fellow booksellers for recommendations. Buy more books. Then I evolve and start "surfing" online. Reading reviews and blogs. Spying on staff picks from other bookstores. The list of contenders grows.

By the time I start packing, there are 21 books next to my empty suitcase. One dress. Two swimsuits. Five shirts. And 21 books. For nine days.

In recent years the airlines have undermined this process with their tyrannical, anti-reading weight limits. More than a few ticket agents have me to thank for their summer reading as I reluctantly gave up novels to avoid paying the $25 overweight penalty. And a second bag for my books is definitely not an option anymore. So I spend an hour the night before we leave, reviewing the books, curating, whittling the list down to the final selection.

I know some of you are already composing your comments about how I need an e-reader. With a nod to Gloria Steinem, I need an e-reader like a fish needs a bicycle. I don't want to stare at a screen on vacation, or worry about my battery life, or concern myself with whether someone is going to steal my electronic device while I'm in the ocean. That doesn't seem relaxing to me; it feels like work. I want to grab a book, throw it in my beach bag, and head out for the day. I want the honeymooning couple next to me to ask if the book's good, or tell me that they read it and loved it. I want to underline paragraphs I love so that when my sweetheart comes out of the waves, or wakes up from his nap, I can share the best parts with him. I want the satisfaction of leaving a good book behind for someone else to discover on their vacation, or, better yet, the thrill of discovering a book is so great that it's worth taking home to live on my bookshelves forever.

Last year my soundtrack consisted of Julian Barnes' exquisite novel Sense of an Ending; The Good Girl's Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace; Mark Salzman's moving memoir of anxiety and spirituality, The Man in the Empty Boat; Caitlin Moran's hilarious How to be a Woman; and a couple of Michael Connelly's (always great) mysteries. Then we happened to meet writer Randy Wayne White and his wife at a bar, and he gave me a copy of his Hannah Smith mystery, Gone. And we found a great little bookstore around the corner from our hotel! It was the perfect reading vacation.

I haven't even started collecting books for this year's vacation. As soon as I finish writing this, I'm headed to the guest room. My sweetheart has already picked out the tome he's taking with him, a book long enough to last him the flight, the vacation, and the return flight home. Maybe now he'll have time to help me cull my list, or, even better, maybe he'll let me use some of the space in his suitcase.