A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I have a history of choosing the wrong book to take on holiday with me. This habit started early, with my first trip away on my own at the age of sixteen. As a treat after my exams, my Dad arranged for me to visit my relations in Sweden. I arrived with a suitcase the size of a coffin for a two week visit to one of the less accessible islands in the Stockholm archipelago. I was going to regret this decision, not just because I had to carry that massive suitcase from the nearest bus stop to the remote spot in the woods where my relatives had their cabin (a distance of several miles), but also because that suitcase contained enough clothes and shoes for a year-long visit to Cannes and one book.
The book was The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, picked more or less at random from my mother’s book shelf in a brief period between trying on all my outfits and sneaking off to meet my older and highly unsuitable boyfriend.
There was nothing to do on that island and I mean nothing. There was a cabin. There were blueberry bushes. There was a boat and fishing tackle, but I didn’t know how to row or fish and at that stage in my life, preoccupied as I was with choosing the right lip gloss, I had no desire to learn. My Swedish relatives were kind, but Swedish. Once they had ascertained that I was about as likely to spend a day going for hearty walks and picking blueberries for my lunch as I was to grow wings and fly, they went off to pick blueberries and catch fish and left me to my own devices. As a defense mechanism against certain death from boredom, I had no choice but to read my book. Luckily for me, the weather that year was good, or I would have spent my two weeks reading Lovecraft in a cabin which smelled of damp tennis balls and was slightly smaller than my suitcase. Instead, I slathered my pale British skin with Hawaiian Sun Factor 0.75, laid a towel on the flattest bit of rock I could find and read.
Looking back, at least I can say chose a classic. I coped with Lovecraft’s tales of creatures from other dimensions and madness fairly well during the day, if ‘fairly well’ means having to be within sight of at least one other person at all times. I even went in the boat with my cousin, rather than be left alone. He made me row while he fished and for entertainment pointed out a nearby rock and informed me that we had better not pull up there because that island was covered in snakes.
How I laughed.
That was during the day. After dark, it got worse. Much, much worse. As soon as the sun went down, Cthulhu lurked behind every spruce tree. Visits to the utedo became an act of steadfast bravery. One evening, my relatives insisted I go night swimming with them. It was, they explained, a family tradition. I lasted all of ten seconds. Unnerved by distant splashing (remember those snakes?), I shot out of the obsidian water and headed back towards my cabin. On my way through the blueberry bushes, I tripped over the family cat. If you want to know what a cat sounds like when you trip over it, take a piece of sheet metal and try to cut though it with a blunt wood saw. When the forest had stopped ringing with the cries of injured feline, I crept into my suitcase-sized cabin. The next day it rained and I left.
Since then, I’ve tried to do better, with mixed results. When the kids were small, we spent a week at Center Parcs in Holland. I brought Charlotte Gray with me and spent my time on duty in the ball pit in floods of tears. On a romantic weekend to a Highland cottage with a boyfriend, I took Cashelmara and became so glued to its pages instead of to him, that he threw it in the peat fire. No prizes for guessing how long that relationship lasted. I also have a history of missed opportunities. I visited Cannery Row without Steinbeck in my bag. I visited Florence without either A Room with a View or Hannibal. I’ve traveled to New York many times, but never in the company of Catcher in the Rye or Bonfire of the Vanities. I’ve taken road trips without On the Road and explored Paris without Suite Française waiting in my hotel room. Instead, I’ve done what most of us do and grabbed something from the bookshop at the airport. One year I went to Rome in the company of A Northern Clemency. I spent a long weekend in a caravan park near Lancaster with Atlas Shrugged. As entertainment, the park had a hall full of slot machines, a man in a balding bear costume and a swimming pool so chlorinated that using it meant risking suffocation. None of the locks in the changing room worked. At least I can say Ayn Rand came in useful for propping the door shut.
This year it’s all going to be different. This year, me and Mr Cath are journeying north, to another tiny cabin on a remote island, this time in Norway near the Arctic Circle. There’s a boat and more islands to explore and this time I know how to fish and how to row and how to appreciate isolation. But even so, I’m going to need something to read, for when the sun sinks behind the sea and we light the fire and pour the whisky. This time, I’m going to make sure my reading fits the trip. I’ve already put aside my copy of The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, the quintessential read for a week spent on a Scandinavian island. But I’ve read that before (several times in fact) and need something new to go with it.
Tell me, what should I take?