Now that some of us are planning to travel again, however tentatively, it’s time to consider the delicious question of vacation reading. Everyone has their own idea of what it should look like. Mine was formed at the end of a holiday weekend in middle school in the 1970s, when my friend Michelle and I pretzeled ourselves into her parents’ station wagon for the long, dull ride to New York from Massachusetts.
The end of a vacation is an occasion for sadness. There were no cellphones to amuse us back then, and the darkness prevented us from flirting with cute boys in other cars. We were beset by ennui in the way of the sisters in Nancy Mitford’s “Pursuit of Love,” endlessly speculating about what time it was. What saved us was the single book Michelle produced from her bag, in a hail-Mary literary move: “The Silver Crown,” by Robert C. O’Brien.
Reading that book in that car at that time transformed one of the worst parts of traveling — the actual traveling — into an interlude of delight. “The Silver Crown” is the story of a girl who receives a shimmery crown on her 10th birthday and is then pursued by mysterious figures with nefarious intent. It thrilled and unsettled us. We took turns reading by flashlight — Michelle read a chapter, and then I did, passing the book back and forth as we sprawled out in the interstices between the luggage and the bags of groceries in our little no-seatbelt fort in the very back of the car.
I can’t remember what we did the rest of the weekend, but it was the best car trip I’ve ever taken, and it forever cemented in me the idea that a vacation book doesn’t need to have anything to do with where you are; it can be a destination in itself. By taking you out of your head in those in-between moments — waiting at the gate to board the plane, riding in the back of the bus between cities, lying in bed during the first night of jet-lagged insomnia in a faraway country — it can restore you to yourself. It cures your boredom, soothes your anxiety and provides stability and constancy.