Robert Fulford's column about vacation reading

(Globe and Mail, June 12, 1999)

Overweening ambition is the great error that stands in the path of anyone who makes plans for vacation reading. It encourages the belief that a holiday, with an ocean of time stretching ahead, provides a chance to conquer the classic that has frustrated all previous efforts to read it, even though you know it's your duty. This urge, sometimes called the Cultural Twitch, can lead us toward disappointment and self-disgust.

I speak from melancholy experience. Who was the silly fellow who thought he would "get into" Das Kapital during a week in Barbados and never even read the introduction? Which nitwit dragged Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism on a winter holiday in Arizona? And what idiot stuffed Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano into his travel bag, year after year, before finally concluding that either Lowry's admirers were crazy or he was?

These defeats finally taught me a harsh truth: If you find it hard to read something at home, it won't be any easier when you're sitting beside a lake in the wilderness or just back from a tour of the ruins. On the other hand, it's a mistake to embrace what Michael Korda, the New York publisher, calls "good bad novels" (i.e., solemn, self-important trash). In a Toronto interview, he recently cited Valley of the Dolls, Peyton Place and The Carpetbaggers as the great good-bad novels of recent times. "If you took any one of those books on a holiday," he said, "you would not regret it."

Well, I would. Perhaps it's perversity, but I resent bootlicking authors who try too hard to please me. Even when lying in the sun, it's not unreasonable to look for something adventurous.

There's no way to keep airline pilots from constantly interrupting you with useless information (who told them that everybody wants to know the route?), so a book to be read on the plane needs to be lightweight. I favour thrillers, especially Robert B. Parker's and Elmore Leonard's, but those gentlemen don't produce enough of what I need -- three or four books a year from each of them.

Fortunately, readers of a certain age eventually discover they can pleasurably revisit thrillers they read long ago. Leave a crime novel alone for a couple of decades and it's readable all over again, even if once in a while you know what the hero will find on the other side of the door before he opens it. I figure that Elmore Leonard and I, after 20 years or so together, are about ready to restart our relationship, at the beginning. I want to reread City Primeval (1980), the first of his Detroit books that I read, and I'm eager to go back to The Moonshine War (1985), which conjures up a 1930s' Kentucky rural atmosphere unlike anything else he's done.

Over the years, I've discovered the pleasures of site-specific reading. I read Pierre Berton's The Last Spike on a train that was heading toward, and eventually passed through, the Rockies. Mountains and book made a wonderful marriage, enriching each other, and Berton's talent as storyteller unfolded as the landscape revealed itself.

I especially like to read about Japan when I'm there. In 1997, I read The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki, about four women of the 1930s living out ancient rituals of courtship and family authority. Most writers would satirize these characters -- history is about to fall on them with terrible force, yet they can think of nothing but arranging marriages and maintaining the family name. Tanizaki, writing about them decades later, had the tact to judge them on their own terms, and according to the standards of their time. The result is enthralling.

Great novels, we should never forget, can be harmed by favourable criticism. Sometimes, critics load them down with so many portentous adjectives that we drive away potential readers; as a book accumulates an aura of greatness, it begins to look intimidating. In that context, I think of three books that anyone can read with pleasure this summer, despite their status as masterpieces.

Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero (1848), by William Makepeace Thackeray, is a classic that retains to this minute an exhilarating lightness of tone. Satire often dies with its subject, but not Thackeray's satire. He inserted into this social novel just about every clue you'll ever need to understand his picture of upper-middle-class strivers in early 19th-century England. And 151 years after she made her first appearance, Becky Sharp, his scheming heroine, remains both repellent and beguiling.

The Way of All Flesh (1903), by Samuel Butler, is the perfect example of the book that triumphs over its status as a classic. It's a witty, impious attack on Victorian life and particularly on Butler's bullying, sanctimonious parents; even 96 years old, it carries more than a whiff of the scandal it created when it first appeared. The libraries are full of clever books by clever writers who prove themselves superior to their parents; this is the original.

The Good Soldier (1915), by Ford Madox Ford, has often been called "a subtle and complex novel" and "a landmark of modernism." Also, it's brave and experimental. So is it any wonder that I've somehow never got around to reading it? Finally, I did, a couple of weeks ago, and it left me gasping with pleasure and admiration.

Will any of these books satisfy a holiday reader? I hope not. No good book is satisfying. That's not a book's job. As Daniel Bell says, a book is not a meal: It succeeds when it makes us hungry for other books.

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