Saturday 20 December 2014

Worthy books are fine, but you can't beat a bit of Summer sizzle

Published 11/07/2014 | 02:30

Mantel piece: Hilary Mantel chose 'Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. Photo: AP
Mantel piece: Hilary Mantel chose 'Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. Photo: AP

DECIDING what to read on holiday is more fraught than what to wear. Books weigh a lot and not everybody has an eReader. Travellers have been forced to bin their books before boarding if they don't fit into their hand luggage. New frills Ryanair has at least relented on that practice.

It can be an unmitigated disaster if you find yourself reading that worthy prize-winner beneath a parasol only to discover that it is bleak and impenetrable.

It is 700 pages long and it was highly recommended and you have nothing else. Worse still if you discover your light 'holiday' reads could have been written by your child.

My last disaster was a book-club choice. I was travelling to Haiti to work for a week with a fellow club member and we packed our weighty copies of 'Wolf Hall' by Hilary Mantel for the long flight and the evenings we had nothing to do. I read one page and will never read the rest.

Professor of Mathematics Jordan Ellenberg, of the University of Wisconsin, has done a survey into Kindle eBooks 'most highlighted passages', which reveals just how far readers have attempted to finish a bestseller. Surprisingly, 'Fifty Shades of Grey' comes up at 26pc making it to the end. For research purposes, I downloaded it for five dollars. Even at that I couldn't get beyond the first few pages of the student crush.

Prof Ellenberg says his survey is for entertainment rather than scientific purposes. Perhaps it shows that downloaders are more fickle, as only 2.4pc made it to the end of 'Capital In The 21st Century', Thomas Piketty's economic treatise. I attended his talk in Dublin recently, it was packed and people were queuing up to get their copies signed. At least when you have the actual book, big brother can't snoop into how far you've read.

The book club I started with a friend in early 2009 was on the basis that we had to justify going out, as some sort of a recession was being prophesied. We came up with the idea of holding our meetings in clubs so as not to pressurise anyone into entertaining at home. We even themed the choice of book with music and optional costume.

So for our first one, 'Revolutionary Road', members could arrive as April Wheeler in '60s make-up or clothes. I really had to persevere with that book and probably wouldn't have finished it if it wasn't for the club. But it remains one I am glad I read. The costume theme ended there, but book pairing took over in earnest; it wasn't enough to read one book, we had to read another for context.

The problem arose when some choices would coincide irrationally with your destination. George Orwell's 'Down and Out in London and Paris' is hailed as a classic, but it was impossible to read a memoir of someone scavenging bins for food while you sit beside a pool in Cannes. We paired it with 'Madame Bovary' as a 'worthy' read that I was guilty of suggesting. I couldn't finish that either, no matter how significant it is as the first example of the modern novel.

A global bestseller, 'The Slap', ended up on our list, for some reason that the author had a Greek name. Again, I struggled and it sits on the unread pile.

We had a brainwave to hold our September 11 meeting at the Dutch Ambassador's residence. For three reasons; we were reading 'Netherland' by Joseph O'Neill based on events around 9/11. The author was Irish and educated in the Netherlands and, thirdly, the ambassador agreed.

'Netherland' went with 'Dreams of My Father' by Barack Obama.

I never finished the latter. Although Obama writes well, life seemed too short at the time.

Somebody picked Booker winner 'The Finkler Question' and though I never finished it, I wanted to ban anything with religious, gender or war themes after attempting it. That only leaves sport and biography really, which none of us cared for.

Our last meeting was in 2011 at the Czech ambassador's house. We read 'Metamorphosis' by Franz Kafka. I don't think I've been forgiven by anyone for that one. After that we were working so hard fighting austerity, we mothballed our club. Recently, a friend lent me 'Thrive' by Arianna Huffington. I won't finish it; at page three, I already know the importance of the third leg on the stool.

'Ulysses' is probably the most aspirational book people feel they should read on holiday.

You could do worse than to immerse yourself in a day in the life of Leopold Bloom and be satisfied for the rest of your life that you did. But then, it all depends how long you reckon you'll live.

Irish Independent

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