I spent the past weeks convinced that my task for Meanjin was to respond to the subject of holiday reading, instead of writing my own entry to their ‘What I’m Reading’ series, so I am honouring my misunderstanding. Apologies!
Holiday reading exists in a category of its own. Come November, recommendations appear in magazines, lift-outs and special columns, online and offline, the titles largely drawn from a narrow range of publishers and genres—thriller, crime, adventure, historical fiction… The promise of holiday reading is immersion and/or diversion, a suspension of the ordinary, an escape from that other real life we lead for the rest of the year.
But holiday reading is not so much a genre as an attitude, a way of reading, an orientation towards the book. It is both a posture and a temporality. To begin with, one ought to be lying down, in bed, or on a couch. Physical comfort is a prerequisite for holiday reading. The body now at rest, holiday reading should proceed for a period of time that cannot be measured or quartered or interrupted, because holiday reading demands that we DO NOTHING other than read.
It makes me wonder about the idea of reading before there were such things as mandated annual leave, before the idea of the working week, the weekend, days off, and before leisure was an industry that could create a workforce. Then I think about the future of holiday reading, what with casualisation and the gig economy, and the terrible pay for picking fruit. What about the young women in the bubble-tea shops and nail bars, and the men in the Ubers? When do they do their holiday reading?
If the essential requirement of holiday reading is a holiday, it is not just any kind of holiday. I haven’t had many of the right kind of holidays lately—even if I had, who could concentrate on anything other than global Covid, the American election and the parlous state of our universities?
Truth be told, I haven’t had many of those kinds of holidays since our kids were very young, when we could pack up and go south to my family’s holiday house. Back then, children went to bed early and slept deeply, leaving us adults to nestle in on the threadbare rocking chair under the reading lamp, or on the spongy old couch which was never going to be cleaned, even though we were also talking about how someone in the family really should do it, and while they were at it could they take down those broken curtain rings?
We never did renovate, but we sure did read.
I read De Lillo’s Underworld on one such holiday. The Corrections on another. I would take three or four novels and in between, work my way methodically through a stack of New Yorkers, a magazine that, in my view, has not been the same since the internet.
But then, neither have I.
I read Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty—but perhaps it’s their similar titles that bring those books together in the same space.
My parents, their house, and those kinds of holidays are long gone. I tried to recreate the past, but by then my children no longer went to bed early. We were in a small permanent hut in a caravan park, and it rained every day. The kids no longer wanted to read books, or colour in, but instead grumbled about bandwidth. And I never did finish A Little Life, which had been recommended in a holiday reading guide.
Perhaps I have never been one for holiday reading. I am someone who reads all kinds of things in all kinds of ways, for innumerable reasons. When my son was in his first year of life and I was struggling to be a new mother at 41, it was to books I turned, not for diversion, but for help. I discovered Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work(2001), and gobbled up her raw, resistant take on motherhood. At last, I thought, here is a mother who understands. And then I came upon a brief, sharp, paragraph where Cusk writes scathingly of older mothers with greying hair bicycling through Oxford—or was it Cambridge?
I am an old mother, I thought, and closed the book.
If holiday reading demands you DO NOTHING, our later family holidays have been lessons in how not to read.
Take the long family trip to northern India. Alert to the problem of luggage and travel from Delhi to Kashmir to Leh by plane, car and bus, I had packed only one real book, but I had brought my new Kindle. (I also had the audio book of Bleak House. Five Stars!)
There were many reasons to come to India, but mine were personal. After my mother died, I found an old card with a picture of the houseboat where she and my father had had their honeymoon in Srinagar. I googled and found The Jacqueline was now run by the great-grandchildren and, Yes, they would be thrilled if we came to holiday. I permitted myself a brief vision of long afternoons on the veranda of the carved boat, twiddling my toes in the waterlilies while shikaras paddled peacefully past, dipping their long wooden oars into the glass water of Dal Lake. Or I would be tucked behind an old desk with my laptop and my work in progress, sipping saffron tea as a Night Heron or a Whiskered Tern winged past.
There are holiday daydreams, and then there are geopolitical realities. Both the houseboat Jacqueline and the Kashmiri people have suffered terribly through the decades of conflicts with India, and tourism has virtually stopped.
Our hosts greeted us at Srinagar airport with white flowers and tears. In the car they chatted about the places they would take us…the Mogul Gardens and the Shah-e-Hamadan Masjid, the beautiful wooden mosque decorated with papier mâché. They said nothing about the heavily-armed Indian soldiers who were everywhere we looked, but they were clearly anxious to have us safely transported across the lake to The Jacqueline.
Our hosts remained vigilant for the week we were there; they sat with us on the veranda of the boat and waved away the endless sellers paddling up with local wares. They insisted we take only their shikara to move about on the lake.
Even in the rare quiet times, holiday reading was difficult. I was increasingly worried about our lake. What exactly happened to the sewerage from our toilet on the boat—where did it go? Was there a management system? I saw garbage floating in the grasses, and thick wads of algae bloom clogging narrow waterways. I read a report on winter bird migration and the effects of lake pollution on their population.
Knowledge might be power, but it can also be dispiriting, and does not mesh easily with the essential attitude for holiday reading.
For holiday readers with a busy daytime schedule of local sights, evenings are sacred. However, dinners on the Jacqueline were elongated affairs; our lovely hosts announced they had brought their ancient grandma out of retirement because only she remembered those signature dishes that my parents must have eaten on their honeymoon. They are sentimental people, the Kashmiris, and such an emotion is to be respected. Covered dishes were ferried to and from unknown sources across the lake to our houseboat; plates of mince and potato, Toad-in-Toad Hall, sausages, beans and mash appeared one after the other, with rice pudding to follow. Despite our insistence that none of this was necessary, that we were MORE than happy dining on famous Kashmiri dishes, our hosts insisted.
You are our guests, they said, and we love you for coming. We will look after you, always.
Late at night the electricity was too weak to read, and besides, the ancient 1930s table lamps with rotten silk shades were broken where the cord met the base. The old Persian carpets were threadbare. The Jacqueline bore traces of its glorious past, but it was clear that business in Srinagar was grim. Our host admitted to deep periods of depression in the past; at times he had thought of suicide, he said. His brothers took our daughter out in the boat, and next thing I saw her leaping off the bow into the lake. I tried not to think about what might be in the water. Later that day they unlocked a drawer and took out the old houseboat log. Here are your parents, they said, running a hand across the yellowed ledger to names, dates and comments.
And there they were.
At night I lay in bed, listening to the hum of generators, and followed the fate of Esther Summerson. Would there ever be time for holiday reading?
Holiday reading can be done effectively in long flights, but we departed Srinagar in a car with no seatbelts, on the NH-1D, the highway to Leh. My husband had determined that the two-day drive up the military-built mountain road was the best way to acclimatise us to a move from 500m elevation at Srinagar to 3250m at Leh, in Buddhist Ladakh, where we were staying for two months while my husband volunteered as a teacher at the Druk Padma White Lotus Buddhist school and our children went to the school.
I could offer details of the perils of this drive, how a giant granite rock toppled from above and blocked the narrow road, causing buses and cars and trucks to stack up for hours until the army arrived with their bull-dozers and explosives and jackhammers, how I tried not to look down into the 1000m drop, how I begged the driver not to smoke in the car, and to explain why there were no seatbelts, because the brochure said there would be and there are no barriers on this road and I can see carcasses of buses in the valley, buses that have gone over with people in them, but such a description has no part in a blog about holiday reading.
Our host family lived in the nearby town outside Leh. They put our son and daughter together in a bedroom in the house, while we moved into a separate room.
At last, I told my husband, I have time to do nothing.
But it was hard to DO NOTHING. Every morning at five, Grandma prayed and blessed us all, murmuring Buddhist chants as she moved between flower beds and tomato plants. Ladakh is on the Himalayan Plateau, and unlike Srinagar, it is bone dry and dusty, and yet there is intense cultivation in the summer months. The large walled family compound was planted with a luscious garden of flowers and vegetables, growing much of the of the family’s food, all watered by a system of gravity-fed open irrigation channels.
I was busy. There was everyday shopping to do, medicines to find, shampoo, block-out for the intense sun. Getting to town involved hailing a minibus on the hot and dusty road, or hitchhiking, a common practice. By the time I got back from town, I would have a cup of tea with my hosts and then go catch up on the washing, accompanied by the audio of Bleak House until the battery went. Like much of Ladakh, there was no electricity during the day. And our clothes were always dusty and dirty and sweaty. I followed my host’s demonstrations and pumped freezing water from the glacier run-off down into a huge trough, from where it was transferred into smaller buckets for washing and rinsing. I particularly enjoyed the squeezing out of water and the pegging on the very long line of rope that stretched from the stairs of the walk-up drop loo to the edge of our room. Over the weeks I came to find this a deeply satisfying routine, far more engaging and rewarding than holiday reading or novel writing. And so did my little helper. It turned out that English was far from universal at the school, and our eight-year old daughter had to fend off constant attention from the children. Being adopted from China, she was taken for either a Tibetan refugee (a good thing) or a small Chinese spy (a bad thing). Either way, it was not easy for her. After one week at school, she became a refusenik. So together we pottered about the garden or took walks through the golden heads of ripening barley, pressing ourselves against the wire fence to let the flocks of Pashmina goats pass through the narrow paths; we stayed home and squeezed out sheets, one of us at each end, twisting in opposite directions, and, as the day came to a close, helped Grandma dig up the potatoes for dinner.
Most nights we gathered on the low platform seats in the large family room to eat excellent momos and vegetable dishes from a cloth laid out on the carpet. The hole in the centre of the ceiling above our heads was for the flu that would be attached to the fire box that would warm the house during the long winter, when it was so cold and the snow so heavy that no one could leave home.
There was a certain urgency about dinners which had to be tempered with caution; one foot near the dinner cloth and you got a sharp slap on the leg from Grandma.
We ate rather quickly, in silence, under the simmering picture of Lhasa on the long wall above, then gathered up the plates and dimmed the oil lamp. A slow roar and the electricity came on, along with the television and the Hindi soap opera to which we were all addicted.
Over the weeks we came to ignore our lack of Hindi and be thankful for the international codes of revenge, lust and miraculous recovery. My husband, however, lost the plot early on. He was up and down every evening, moving plugs in and out of the double adaptor in our room, charging up the Kindle and the computer and the phone so we could get a hotspot in bed at night, and he could tell everyone about our trip, and I could get on with holiday reading.
But everything was taking time from my holiday reading. There were so many special days, feasts, weddings, and community ceremonies, and we were welcome at all. The barley had to be blessed. Thanks had to be given, prayers said, spirits placated. There was a wedding in the town, and our host was one of the organisers. When the Dalai Lama came to the open field in our town for three days of teaching, thousands of people descended from the mountain on foot, by bus, and car. Our whole school stood on our road and waved as he passed by, the yellow hats catching the intense Himalayan sun.
Then there were the special guests from England, a wealthy couple and their children who were donors to the school, international sophisticates with two multi-lingual girls. The woman and her children arrived dressed not for Ladakh, but the Marais. I suggested it could be very hot and dusty and she might like to change shoes. She kept me busy with questions about how to flush the toilet with buckets, what to do with washing, and is it safe? They were only with us for a few days, but they wanted adventure (a terrifying rafting trip where we nearly died in icy rapids and the children all went blue) and a barbecue. I volunteered to go to the Moslem market in Leh for chicken, planning to sneak in a stop to the German bakehouse and do my holiday reading.
I had my one book in the bag—Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. The plan was to swap it for a smaller, lighter book in one of the little second-hand bookshops that I’d spotted. Alas, I found endless copies of Siddhartha and The Glass Bead Game, dogged-eared editions of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The World According to Garp, out-of-date Lonely Planets and a copy of Small Is Beautiful. Dispirited by holiday reading, I stopped off to visit some friends we had met in Srinagar, young entrepreneurial brothers who came up for the summer to sell Pashmina scarves to trekkers and tourists. They had great bandwidth in their little shop, and sometimes we left our children with them to play Mario Cart.
They told me where to find the chickens, which were all skinny and dirty and flapped wildly and made me wish I was Buddhist. Which ones? They asked me at the shop. I shook my head, declining to participate in their specific fate, yet wholly complicit in their general demise. The man wrapped the warm, plucked carcasses in newspaper and pressed them into my hands.
Every so often when the minibus home took a sharp left around a stupa, a small pool of blood would leak out into my lap and onto the floor. The Tibetan women opposite me stared.
Need I go on?
Last week, however, I really did go on holidays. I sat down and DID ALMOST NOTHING for five days. First, I read The Only Story, by Julian Barnes. I was not transported by the book, but I did manage to discover something about myself and my mother. It is to do with class and obsessive tidiness and is quite personal. You will have to read it for yourselves to understand, and even then, you may not.
Then I read Sigrid Nunez’s What Are You Going Through? This is a serious novel and would probably not make a holiday reading list, but I read it anyway and tried to guess the real identity of the anti-natalist intellectual in the book.
You can do that with holiday reading; you can pretend everything is real, or nothing.
Then I read Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible. Five stars. I mean it.
Finally, the holiday ended, and we spent half a day cleaning and packing, and another day and half unpacking and washing.
Home. The sheets were on the line. The esky was empty. I checked Facebook and saw that Dal Lake was frozen over, and the cedar tips of the Jacqueline’s ornate bow were etched in ice. I liked the photo and sent greetings to our friends. 40 degrees Celsius here! I tapped. Come back soon! They wrote. Love to the family.
I lay in bed and turned to the stack of books on the bedside table. How would I ever read them all?
I picked up Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain and began to read it for the second time, not because she is my friend, which she is, but because she has written a wonderful book that has no interest in how the market divides titles up into tight little genres, into light and dark, tragic and comic, entertaining and escapist or searing and timely. This is a book that does not demand to be read in a certain way, at a particular time.
I read on, until I could read no more, and then I turned down the top right corner of the page to mark my place, which is a habit I have had since childhood, when I would read late into the night until I heard my mother coming up the corridor. I would quickly turn down the corner, push the book under my pillow, switch off my reading light and lie still as a mouse, eyes pressed shut.
‘You’ve got school tomorrow,’ she would say, leaning into the room. ‘You’ll never wake up. No more reading, hear me? You’ll have to wait for the holidays.’
Perhaps it is these forced pauses, the reluctant but unavoidable deferrals, the putting aside of stories to go to school, to work, to clean, to care, and the longing to return that such partings engender that makes readers of us all?
A reader in Dickens’ day, desperate for news of Esther and Lady Deadlock had to wait a month for new chapters to be published; perhaps we are all serial readers, formed by clocks and capitalism and labour and precarity, juggling our moments of selfhood and pleasures against our collective pain, hoping to hell we don’t need holidays for reading, because the way the world of work is going, there won’t be many who have them.
Here’s to turning down the corner of the page, and picking up where you left off.
Josephine Wilson is a Perth-based writer who has written and reviewed across different fields, including performance, poetry and visual art and design. Her novel Extinctions (UWA Publishing, 2016) won the 2017 Miles Franklin Award, the Colin Roderick Award, and was nominated for the Prime Minister’s Literature Award. Her first novel was Cusp, (UWA Publishing, 2005). She currently teaches full-time at Murdoch University.