Choosing the right book for a vacation is as much fun as the trip itself

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I brought a retired Chicago cop, an Irish bachelor farmer, and some chaotic street thugs on my recent vacation to Portugal. They all appear in a novel by Tana french called The Searcher, which I packed in my carry-on last week.

Why should I take a book from rural Ireland to Portugal when it was on display nearby when I shopped at Politics & Prose was a novel with a more apt title: ‘Two Nights in Lisbon’? Well, I wasn’t sure I wanted someone else’s descriptions of the city I was going to visit to interfere with my own experience. Besides, said the book cover Chris Pavones The new novel is about a husband who mysteriously disappears while traveling with his wife to the Portuguese capital. That’s exactly the kind of crazy thing that would happen to me. I didn’t want to tempt fate.

But I asked myself: What makes a good holiday read? Is it a novel that takes place in the city you’re in and gives you a chill of recognition every time you stumble across a street corner or square where a plot point occurs? Is it a non-fiction book about this place that will help you understand its history, culture or architecture? Is it a biography of someone closely associated with this city?

Or is it something else entirely: an unrelated palate cleanser chosen to revitalize the spirit after a hectic day of sightseeing? A vacation should be an escape. Would your escape benefit from escapist literature?

For me, choosing the right books for a vacation is almost as much fun as the vacation itself. I’m not always right. I managed to complete the first person account of a survivor of the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed in the Andes and resorted to cannibalism, but it was a poor choice for a beach house in the Outer Banks. Somehow, however, “Moby Dick” was perfect for a rainy weekend in Chincoteague in the 1980s with my then-girlfriend. Would the relationship survive if we were stuck in a small condo, each of us in our own corners, in our own heads? (Reader, I married her.)

Reading has the magical ability to transport us. Your body is in one place, your mind in another. A book’s environment may be more important than the physical environment of the person reading it — I’d rather read a good book in a bad environment than a bad book in a good environment — but that doesn’t mean the two are independent. Just as the right wine can enhance a meal, the right setting can enhance a book – and vice versa.

Occasionally it all comes together: reading version of the Aristotelian unity of time, place and action. And not just on vacation. I sometimes like to read in the bath, luxuriating in the amniotic fluid and drying my fingers on a towel to turn the pages. I loved reading Jasper Ffordes ‘Early Riser’ – a fantasy novel about a world gripped by an ice age where most people hibernate to survive the winter – as steam rose from the tub and frost tinted the windowpane.

I knew the French Tana paperback wouldn’t last the whole holiday and I was looking forward to buying something in the country, so to speak – if I could find a Portuguese bookshop that sold books in English. In Porto we visited the Livrario Lello, which is called the most beautiful bookshop in the world. It’s an Art Nouveau masterpiece, a jewel case with carved wood flourishes, stained glass windows and a crimson-painted sweeping staircase. When I was in the store, I really wanted to drink absinthe.

Livrario Lello has become such a must-see that a line stretches out the door and you need a timed entry ticket – 5 euros, good for any purchase – just to get in.

The store is not organized like a typical Barnes and Noble. None of the titles are stamped in foil like the mysteries that adorn airport kiosks. Lello chooses to organize books in unique ways, including authors who have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, authors who have died, who should they won, and the living who might yet. A separate section is dedicated to the books of the only Portuguese Nobel Prize winner: Jose Saramago (1998).

To be honest I didn’t know anything about the guy. But I thought to myself, When I was in Rome…I picked up a paperback copy of Blindness and started reading, “The amber light came on. Two of the cars accelerated before the red light appeared. A green man sign lit up at the pedestrian crossing.”

Saramago never says where that city street is – which country the events of the novel take place in – but now that I’ve been to Portugal (was still there!), I could imagine it being Portugal, around the corner from mine Hotel, near the tram station, near the bakery …

“Yes,” I thought and carried the book to the till, “that’s going to be fine.”

How do you decide which books to take on vacation? Did you have a particularly sublime experience with your choice – or a bad one? Send the details – with “reading material” in the subject line – to me at john.kelly@washpost.com.

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