How to Choose a Book for Vacation

It’s hard to find time to read. We have about a million other things vying for our attention, and those things tend to beep and chirp and tweet whenever they don’t get it. I get paid to read stuff (I’m a book reviewer, and I used to be a bookseller), and I still have trouble finding time to actually sit down with a book. So vacation, with its promise of uninterrupted reading time, can be pretty exciting for a frustrated reader.


But narrowing the stack of potential books — the ones cluttering up your nightstand — to the ones that will actually fit in your suitcase can be daunting. I’ve been through this process many times myself (most recently yesterday, when I stuffing books in my suitcase on my way to catch a train), so I thought I’d share my tips with everyone about to head off for a long Memorial Day weekend:

Don’t Pick a Classic or a Book You’ve Been Avoiding

If you really want to read a classic, go for it. But if you feel like you should … leave it at home. If that book feels like a chore at your house, it’s still going to be a drag when you’re on vacation. It’s better to bring a book by an author you’ve loved in the past, or that’s in a genre you always enjoy. Books recommended by friends who share your tastes are usually good choices; books recommended by frenemies who constantly try to upstage you are not. If you’re stuck, find a bookseller: List a few titles you’ve enjoyed in the past, and let them work their magic, finding a new favorite based on your choices.


Pack a Book You Don’t Mind Losing (or Want to Give away)

This vacation will wreak havoc on your book. You’ll smoosh it into your bag, or it’ll fall into the pool, or one of your cousins will spill a milkshake on it. Even if it doesn’t get torn up, you’ll probably want the space in your suitcase for stuff you buy on the trip (like new books, haha). When I’m staying with friends, I love to leave them books I think they’ll be into, and sometimes I’ll even leave books on public transportation with a little note that whoever finds it is welcome to keep it.


Get the Paperback

You can totally pack a hardcover if you want to, but don’t blame me when it’s jammed awkwardly in your overstuffed bag, when it’s difficult to hold in one hand while you’re reading in the oh-so-long line for luggage, or when it won’t stay open on your tray table while you’re trying to eat and read at the same time.


Read a Few Chapters First

You don’t want to be reading the right book at the wrong time: no sappy chick lit if you just had your heart broken; no scary, true crime novels if you’re vacationing at a creepy old cabin and you’re the skittish type; no immersive, atmospheric epics if you’re going to get interrupted a thousand times by little kids. In my experience, the best way to know if the book is right for my vacation is to actually read some of it. A chapter or two will let you know if you want to dive in further, but it’s not so much that you’ll be bummed if you need to re-read it to refresh your memory about what happened. It’ll also be easier to dip into the story while waiting for your plane if you’re already immersed in the book a bit.

Pack One Fun Book, One Serious Book, and One eReader

If you can get away with just one book in your suitcase, by all means go for it. I’m much too obsessive for that, and I’ve been known to fill an entire bag with books because “I don’t know what I’ll be in the mood for.” Now, I solve that problem by bringing two paper books that serve very different moods (often one fiction and one non-fiction), and popping my Kobo in my bag as a backup — having electronic access to any book I want gives me a lot of security.


Yeah, I love paper books, but I actually really enjoy my Kobo as well. Sometimes, I’ll even pack only ONE paper book along with my eReader! (You’ve got to have at least one, just in case civilization collapses and the electric grid fails or something.) An eReader also gives you a backlight when they turn out all the lights on the train before you’re sleepy (this, unlike the scenario above, is not a doomsday scenario and actually happens all the time), or when you’re sharing a hotel room with a light sleeper and you’re wide awake at midnight.

Music to Read by: Soundtracks Are Your Friend

This doesn’t relate to packing books, but it can make vacation reading more enjoyable. If you’re distracted by sounds like I am (my family and friends are currently laughing at this understatement of the year), or if you want to signal to strangers that you’re not available for chats, headphones are great. I’m a big fan of movie soundtracks, especially the instrumental ones, because they aren’t distracting, and they tend to add a nice bit of drama to whatever I’m reading. My favorites are Finding Neverland and Harry Potter (duh).


So that’s it! The main thing is, choose a book you’re actually excited about reading. The rest will pretty much take care of itself. (And if civilization collapses while you’re away and you’re enjoying your electricity-independent entertainment, remember that you have me to thank — assign me some rations or grant me shelter from the zombies or something.)


Carrie Rollwagen reviews books for Southern Living and BookPage. She’s also Communications Director at Infomedia and author of The Localist. Find her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @crollwagen.

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