Travel and Reading: A Vacation in Pages

Is it still 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 planes. Weird to remember all the awkward dances of cramming into tiny places with strangers, a weirdness exponentially compounded by pandemic anxiety. Weird to get on the subway, weird to return to a place I haven’t been since before the pandemic began. All the weirdnesses of the last two years, compacted and intensified in my old home, now far from home.

Traveling is reading time. All that between-time, the between-spaces of planes and airports and trains and every other mode of transit: Since I was old enough to read, I’ve filled those places with pages. Thousands of miles on Greyhound buses, moving between parents, is equal to hundreds of books read. Flying home from college, reading things entirely different than what I’d read for class. Commuting on the subway with a book carefully held in one hand. (Anyone who’s ever commuted in New York knows how many ways you can find to hold a book and turn pages single-handed, if you must. And often, you must.)

But travel reading is not unchanged by the last few years, either.

What we want in the books we pack with us, when we’re headed out on a road trip or to the airport or train station, is as varied as our travel preferences. Window, aisle, observation car. Escapism, education, a break from the norm. What I wanted was to fall into something, to repeat 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 motion; returning to a travel read can, faintly and distantly, recall that experience. American Gods is always traveling in Australia, to me, however contradictory that sounds. When I reread it, two landscapes layer over each other in my mind.

But on this trip, I skipped through bits of books, unsettled, and watched two James Bond movies. (Spectre was awful. No Time to Die made less sense but was still better. Q is perfect, no notes.) I had loaded up my iPad with library books and ebooks and yet I couldn’t tell you much about what any of them were. A wonky space opera with too much infodumping. A gentle fantasy in a world with a cruel climate. Something involving a boat. Scan a page, sigh, get woozy in the haze of white noise, try something else. Repeat until frustrated.

Is vacation reading always escapism? 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 all over, trying to see as much of a place as possible, “traveling.” I tend to read while traveling and watch TV on vacation—at night, when I’ve walked 12 miles in a strange city and just want to sip a glass of wine in my pajamas and zone out with some space friends. 

This time, I didn’t want to do either. I wanted stories to download themselves into my brain and rattle around, seeping in via osmosis. The concept of vacation reading, to my fantasy-obsessed brain, never made much sense beyond the practical. (I choose traveling books with simple criteria: How much space do I have, and how many plane-hours do I have to fill?) Every fantasy novel is a trip somewhere strange and new, an escape—often an escape to a world where maybe justice is possible, where maybe change still seems like something a small group of passionate rebels can bring about. The escape is not the existence of dragons, the presence of magic, the idea of a clear and obvious (and defeatable) evil. The escape is that, by the end of the book, something is different. The world has changed. The world feels changeable, and for the better. I don’t want to be distracted, entertained, spoon-fed fluff. I want to be somewhere else, believing something else is possible. 

I want that regardless of where I am when I’m turning pages, but it feels different when you’re away from home—especially on the kind of trip where it seems as if something should feel different when you return. Fantasy is full of departures, travels, journeys to places protagonists never thought they’d see; they return changed, grown, irrevocably different. Vacation doesn’t do that, usually. Traveling certainly can. But we’re not saving the world. We’re just trying to see more of it, to avoid burnout, to take a break, to experience something different. 

It’s easy to want too much from a vacation read, the same way it’s easy to want too much from a vacation. But the right books can offer some of the same things: the thrill of going, of moving, of seeing something new, of being in an old place in a new way. Maybe you read Chronic City and The City We Became while in New York, or pick up Francesca Lia Block in Los Angeles. There’s Summer in the City of Roses and Geek Love for Portland, more books than I can count for England (maybe start with Sorcerer to the Crown), Justine Larbalestier’s Magic or Madness series for Sydney, We Ride Upon Sticks if you’re headed to coastal Massachusetts, Brown Girl in the Ring for a different vision of Toronto. You could make a whole atlas of these places. (Sometimes I want to.)

Fantasy has its own geography, but it borrows ours as well; you could build road trips around the towns where magic happens in books. Some are fictional, sure, but you know the types. You know where there are faeries under boardwalks and trolls under bridges, far from the chain fast food restaurants that try to make every landscape look the same. You can find these places anywhere, even if you can’t travel right now: culverts under quiet roads, arched trees in a quiet stretch of street. Learning the names of the trees is a small magic, like the smell of rain on dry sidewalks. 

Maybe travel isn’t in the cards right now—and if it is, maybe it feels weirder and even more uncomfortable than ever before. Take a comfort book, if you have those; take comfort sounds, comfort smells, visit comfort places. I don’t want to go anywhere for a while, but I want a vacation. It might look like nothing more than standing under a wisteria arch down the block, listening to Tori Amos in my headphones. Can you take a vacation to the familiar? Would it look the same as it always does? Will it read like 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.

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