Left to my own devices, the suitcase I would bring on a Florida vacation would be 90% full of books. If there happens to be any leftover room for a toothbrush and a swimsuit, great. Anything else would be superfluous. But as my wife is fond of reminding me, these are no longer viable packing options, given our current circumstances.
Apparently, when traveling with four young children, the overwhelming majority of everyone’s luggage space must be dedicated to “essentials” (i.e. clothing, diapers, sunscreen, snacks). Sadly, personal reading material for you takes a low priority in this calculus. Hard-core bibliophile that I am, a vacation without books is no vacation at all. But when flying with family, vacation reading selections must be made with care, taking several factors into consideration, as follows:
1. Space and Weight
This one might seem obvious, but never was it more obvious to me than after our late-night arrival at Tampa International Airport. I had retrieved all but one of our suitcases, and was anxious to obtain the last one and get to the hotel. When the piece in question finally made its way around the carousel, I didn’t immediately recognize it as one of ours. This is because, somewhere in transit, its main zipper had been completely destroyed. What was left of our suitcase was spewing its contents all over the conveyor belt. This was embarrassing. But not nearly so embarrassing as then having to take said suitcase in my arms, holding it awkwardly like a cumbersome 49.5 pound toddler, and manhandling it (along with the rest of our luggage) all the way to the car.
Outside it was close to 80 degrees, and at right around 900% humidity. As beads of sweat shot from my forehead, I didn’t experience one moment of sorrow that I had ultimately decided to leave that dusty copy of War and Peace at home. I’ve been meaning to read it, I still want to read it, but this was not the time.
When traveling solo, or at least without kids, I fully embrace a “the more, the merrier” approach to book packing. True, I might not finish all ten of those hefty tomes crammed into my carry-on, but they are there if I need them. The last time I traveled sans offspring, I brought Infinite Jest (1079 pages), Plato at the Googleplex by Rebecca Goldstein (480 pages), and Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together (360 pages), among others. I could have stayed on vacation for a year and not finished all the reading material I brought with me. But when traveling with kids and the mountains of stuff that kid travel requires, you have to make different decisions.
2. Content and Material
Somewhat related, you have to pay more attention to the types of books you bring on a trip like this. I’m not saying beach reading has to be all mindless harlequin fluff (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but you probably want to go with something lighter than, say, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Vacation reading with kids comes in fits and starts. I don’t know about you, or your attention span, but I have a hard time really pondering the mysteries of the universe or getting my head around the theory of relativity with one kid in my lap, another screaming for fruit snacks, and a third stuffing a Cheeto in my ear. So pick something you can get into and enjoy in increments of five minutes or less.
Also remember, when traveling with little ones, personal space is nonexistent, and bored new readers may well be looking over your shoulder. Unless you want to explain to your doe-eyed 6-year-old (and the entire rest of the plane) what “BDSM” stands for, spicier selections should probably be left on the nightstand back home.
You heard me say Cheetos, right? Well, if you think those faux-cheese fingers aren’t going to be all over whatever it is you’re reading, and your phone, and the seat, and your shirt, and the shirt of the person sitting in front of you, you haven’t been doing this very long. So don’t add further stress to an already stressful situation by bringing along reading material it would upset you to see completely destroyed.
For this trip in particular, I knew I was going to be spending the majority of my time either at the beach or poolside. Even without kids, these are perilous conditions for a book. When we left, I was actively reading and very much enjoying signed copies of both Jonathan Franzen’s Purity and Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen. The fear of picturing these prized possessions slathered in sandy sunscreen or drifting slowly towards the bottom of the pool inspired me to leave them at home.
Instead, I brought along a few inexpensive paperbacks I had recently acquired at a local used bookstore. I liked these books, sure, and the destruction of any good book is its own mini-travesty, but if these particular books were ripped, or thrown in a toilet, or spontaneously burst into flames, I decided I would survive.
4. No Fear of Abandonment
Which leads to the last of my vacation reading criteria. Vacationing with kids is crazy and unpredictable. You literally never know what is going to happen from one minute to the next. You are always in a hurry. Potential crisis lurks everywhere. Make your reading selections accordingly.
You know that nagging feeling you get where you are sure you are forgetting something, but can’t ever seem to figure out what it is? That sensation has increased exponentially since we had kids, and with good reason. Traveling with children, I have lost and/or forgotten swimsuits, car keys, sunglasses, electronics, various quantities of cash, and yes, inevitably, books.
Sometimes a kid has an outburst and you have to dash off suddenly. Books get left in seatback pockets and on restaurant tables. Sometimes you are so sick of the noise and claustrophobia of six people in one hotel room, you no longer care what books or clothes or trinkets are potentially left behind, you have to leave right that second, before your head explodes. Books get left under beds, in drawers, or behind the curtains. Oh, and kids move and hide things. It’s a fun game (for them), but they have short attention spans, and are soon so engrossed in Sponge Bob Squarepants that they not only no longer remember where they hid Daddy’s book, but have completely forgotten that they ever hid it all. When this is a cheap paperback, no big deal. A signed first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, on the other hand? Ahhhhhhhh!
Other times, there simply isn’t room. Having been worn and crumpled and tossed back in the suitcase, everyone’s clothes seem to have expanded to three times their original size. Clunky winter shoes worn on the plane on the way down have now been abandoned for the much more space efficient flip flops that everyone is wearing instead. And with kids especially, you will be returning home with more possessions than you had when you left. Souvenirs, candy, new clothes, sea shells, sand toys, it all has to go somewhere. If you’re finished with a couple of those bulky novels, this might be a good place to make some room.
I’m not saying you need to throw them in a dumpster. Sometimes you’ve made friends on your trip, and this makes an excellent parting gift. Some places have a “borrow a book, leave a book” station, and this is a perfect place to unload completed books you no longer need/want to take home (warning: on more than one occasion, I have left one of these exchanges with more books than I ended up giving away. Luckily, this last trip, the only offerings were a handful of James Patterson bestsellers, and these were all in Finnish. Not speaking any Finnish myself, I was somehow able to resist).
I survived and, perhaps surprisingly, all of my books did too. But bringing inexpensive copies of books I could bear to part with gave me the peace of mind to truly enjoy my time off, while still sneaking in some reading time when and where I could. What tips or tricks do you have for vacation reading?