Ian McMillan: The perils of the great holiday read

Ian McMillan

Ian McMillan

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This is the time of year when people buy books or download books, to take on holiday with them, to put next to the towel by the busy pool or balance in a tottering pile on the bedside cupboard of a rented cottage by a quiet bay. The received wisdom is that these vacation volumes are a kind of relief, a change of direction from the ordinary humdrum reading that fills your working life. So, if you spend hours in the office reading reports and spreadsheets, you’ll pack a thriller or two, and if you normally stretch your brain poring over academic documents, you’ll stash a huge historical romance in your backpack.

One year, as a lad in his late teens, I was convinced by this kind of subliminal advertising and took a science fiction novel on holiday with me; I’d been reading loads of difficult poetry for A-level and I thought the adventures of astronauts searching for the lost Gfoths of Thofth before the beast of Zfofth devoured everybody (I’m making this up, but it was something like that) might cool my brain down a little.

My mam’s rainmate flapped in the breeze and my dad hunched lower into his scarf until a passer-by may have concluded that he had no head at all.

It was a windy, damp summer week in a seaside town that faced east. My mam and dad and I sat stoically in a shelter that really should have been prosecuted under the Trades Descriptions Act. My mam’s rainmate flapped in the breeze and my dad hunched lower into his scarf until a passer-by may have concluded that he had no head at all. I sat and tried to read my book, and I came across a number of the problems that will haunt the precious days off of anyone who has taken a book on holiday: the horrors of al-fresco reading.

How does outdoor book-consumption disappoint? Let me count the ways. The drizzle that makes the words run slowly down the page as though they are trying to hide. The sudden storm that turns the book into a papier-mâché sculpture on the pointlessness of art. The ice-cream dropped on the last page of the whodunnit, temporarily rendering the mystery unsolvable. The Force Nine gale that almost grabs the book from your fingers and hurls it into the sea. The Force Ten gale that grabs the book from your fingers and hurls it into the sea. The sun that beats down so hard that you have to use the book as a hat. The fellow holidaymaker who tries to read your book over your shoulder. The fellow holidaymaker who has read the book you’re reading and leans over to tell you the ending. The fellow holidaymaker who asks if he can borrow your (heavy, hardback) book to knock in his windbreak on the beach and then forgets to give it you back and can be seen later on reading it from behind the comfort of his windbreak. The awful truth that dawns on you as you open the book on the first morning of the well-earned fortnight off when you discover you’ve read it before.

Oh well, enjoy your holiday reading, everyone!

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