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How holiday reads became the most important books of the year

A group of holiday-makers sunning themselves on a south coast beach in 1895. Three of them have their noses in books - Credit: Express/Express/Getty Images

A marketing invention of the publishing industry or a genuine opportunity to broaden horizons? CHARLIE CONNELLY on the phenomenon of beach books

Now that the sun’s been out for longer than 20 minutes it won’t be long before we’re bombarded with recommendations for this year’s holiday reading. As ever these will take two forms: a round-up of the higher-profile new books being published over the next few weeks and a clutch of celebrities all telling us how they can’t wait to finally get around to The Thursday Murder Club. Neither approach is tailored particularly to your forthcoming vacation, staycation or period of self-isolation but these guides have become iron horses of the literary calendar, a sort of in-between Christmas for the publishing industry.

Holiday reads, beach reads, summer reads, call them what you will, for the reader these are arguably the most important books of the year. After all, we can’t just take any old books away with us. We can read any old books any old time. Our leisure is limited enough already so the books we read during the period earmarked specifically for it need to be carefully selected.

I was away for a few days last month and naturally spent far more time than was necessary in choosing books to take with me. It was the first time since last summer I’d ventured further than the dump so I was keen to get my reading choices absolutely spot on. I went for a range of fiction and non-fiction, contemporary and historical, some books I’d bought specially for the trip, others I’d been meaning to get around to for ages, yet more I’d read before but was keen to revisit. For weeks in advance I was preparing, tweaking and adjusting what was, if I say so myself, the perfect selection. If expressed as a Venn diagram of genres and vintages there would have been a picture of me at its centre looking insufferably smug and doing finger guns.

Now, can you guess how many of these landmarks in bibliophilic wonderment I ended up actually reading? None. Zilch. Didn’t finish a single book.

In fact, other than a few pages here and there I made no significant inroads into any of my selected volumes. Did I feel bad about this? No, I did not. I was doing other nice things and that was fine.

Back at home I unpacked my unread books and began to wonder about the nature of holiday reading. Is it really a thing? Or is it a wheeze cooked up between publishers and the media to fill pages and shopfront tables? If we look beyond the annual panhandling of new titles and celebrity endorsements can we come up with a better way to select our beach reading?

One assumption is that holiday reading means light reading. It’s down time, a break from anything that involves deep metaphor, critical analysis or indeed much in the way of thinking at all. It’s books that feed words into our eyes with enough of a plot to keep us turning the pages without once needing recourse to a dictionary or a lengthy exchange of letters in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement.

A certain amount of snootiness has always been attached to holiday reading. People have been looking down their noses at it for nearly as long as there have been holidays. As far back as the summer of 1840, for example, The Era reviewed Ellen Wallace’s debut The Clandestine Marriage and expressed relief that it wasn’t “one of those fashionable, trashy novels that publishers get up for the circulating libraries during that season which so many people spend at watering places – one of those namby-pamby books which namby-pamby young ladies take on to the sea-beach to read while they pretend to study conchology”.

Ouch. It’s within this sneery, misogynistic condemnation of popular fiction that the root of the snobbery may lie. The circulating library, the predecessor of today’s public library, developed during the 18th century in spa towns and resorts, places like Bath and Brighton whence people would decamp for the benefit of their health. As these libraries were well-stocked with novels – at a time when just about any form of fiction outside Shakespeare and the classical Greek plays was regarded by literary gatekeepers practically as non-surgical lobotomy – so their patrons, most of whom were young women, came to be viewed as pea-brained numbskulls seduced by cheap thrills and hammed-up romance.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wasn’t a fan. “For as to the devotees of the circulating libraries, I dare not compliment their pass-time, or rather kill-time, with the name of reading,” he huffed in his 1817 Biographia Literaria. “Call it rather a sort of beggarly day-dreaming, during which the mind of the dreamer furnishes for itself nothing but laziness, and a little mawkish sensibility.”

Things hadn’t improved 90 years later, at least not according to a correspondent for the Belfast newspaper The Northern Whig.

“You may see young ladies carrying novels; you may even see them making show of reading them,” he harrumphed in 1908. “Rarely, however, does it ever come to anything, and, except in the case of those who have contracted the mania for novel-reading, I fancy that by the average person on holiday very little reading is accomplished.”

In the century or so since then the misogyny might have eased off a little but holiday reading has never shaken off its reputation for being downmarket. In 2009 David Cameron told Andrew Marr that on his forthcoming holiday in France he was intending to read “a really trashy novel”. He was later photographed reading Patricia Cornwell which is an interesting definition of ‘really trashy’, but this is after all a man who in another doomed attempt to appear relatable couldn’t remember whether he supported Aston Villa or West Ham United.

Celebrity recommendations are nothing new, either. In one selection from the early 1900s that “elicited from a number of well-known people their views on the best books for holiday reading”, Mr A.J. Wilson (nope, me neither) tipped George Finlay’s History of Greece in five volumes as the ideal beach read. Dr Robertson Nicoll (again, nope) revealed he was packing Samuel Richardson’s 1748 novel Clarissa, a book clocking in at a shade under a million words whose current Penguin edition runs to more than 1,500 pages. In case he rattled through that too quickly and risked his being left drifting on his giant inflatable unicorn bookless, he was also taking Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Frankly astounding though these selections are, one thing I could relate to was Dr Nicoll taking a back-up choice with him. I remember being amazed when a friend once told me all he was planning to read on holiday was Larry McMurtry’s 850-page western epic Lonesome Dove, a book he’d been meaning to get around to for ages. That’s it, I asked, that’s really the only book you’re taking? He was adamant. No distractions. No other books competing for his attention. Just that one.

There were two reasons I was bewildered by this. First of all, he was going to a caravan park in Canvey Island for a fortnight. Was there not a danger that in immersing himself so comprehensively in the world of one book his memories might become confused and he’d come back telling friends about gunfights in the public bar of the Lobster Smack and how he’d driven steers across the plains to Southend?

But what horrified me most was the possibility he’d get a few pages in and realise he didn’t like Lonesome Dove after all, leaving him with the Hobson’s choice of pressing on with a book he wasn’t enjoying or abandoning it and having no book to read at all.

As it turned out he finished Lonesome Dove and enjoyed it, but the potential pitfalls would have been too much to bear for me. I might not have selected Paradise Lost but I was certainly with Dr Nicoll on having at least one fallback option.

This is why the only piece of holiday reading advice I’ll press on you is this – take a selection. Choosing holiday reading is effectively predicting the future, a tricky business at the best of times, so give yourself as good a chance of getting it right as possible.

My suggestion would be to base your holiday reading on five books made up of the following. I don’t mean necessarily take just these but I’d wager you won’t regret the following as a core selection.

First, a thriller. From Ian Rankin to Agatha Christie to Richard Osman, settling down with a pacy mystery feels like the perfect way to unlock the shackles of the working year and immerse oneself in a mental infinity pool, albeit one with a body floating in it. Thrillers keep us guessing, pull us along and provide a definitive, unambiguous ending. Even Otto von Bismarck, not a man who gave the impression he’d ever done the hokey-cokey, would pack into his holiday portmanteau detective novels by pioneering French crime writers Émile Gaboriau and Fortuné du Boisgobey.

Next, some kind of anthology. A collection of short stories maybe, a book of letters, a selection of great pieces of journalism; essentially a book you can read either from cover to cover or just dip into at random when you feel like it because you are, after all, on holiday.

Take a recent prize-winning work of fiction, too. Picking a novel can be a daunting task, and one advantage of the major literary prizes is that while the judges’ decision is subjective, they’ve read a whole bunch of books before making their selection. The latest Booker winner is always a good choice: it’s the most talked-about of the prizes and people on the beach will think you’re dead cultured and brainy.

Fourthly, you can’t go wrong with a book of poetry. I know that wouldn’t be many people’s first choice to shove into their tote bag with the sunglasses and Factor 30 but it works for the same reason as the anthology: it gives you the choice between immersion and the brief perusal. Poems as self-contained slices of life and wisdom can provide wonderful moments of pure escape, ideal for a holiday.

Finally, choose yourself a good, solid classic novel, preferably from before the 20th century. Not necessarily Clarissa, if you were flying that would take up most of your weight allowance, but something like an Austen or a Dickens would be perfect. Choose a book you’ve always meant to read but as you’ve brought alternatives you won’t beat yourself up if you don’t end up getting around to it.

One last thing: put at least some faith in serendipity. Just as other people’s meals always look nicer than yours when eating out, other people’s books can have a similar effect. One reason I didn’t make inroads into my holiday choices was that I was in an Air BnB with a fantastic selection of books, including a collection of interviews with writers from the Paris Review in which I thoroughly lost myself. Which was handy, as the only category I had neglected to bring from my failsafe, five-point list above was an anthology. See? It really works.

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