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Alex Johnson’s… book recommendations

| 04 Jan 2018

Travel writers dread being asked where their favourite holiday destination is. But author Alex Johnson has no trouble picking his favourite spot – it’s his bookshelf! 

Books on shelf isolated

You can keep your ancient temples and majestic mountains, your magical rainforests and incredible beachside restaurants. What I most enjoy about going on holiday is the time spent contemplating which books I want to take away with me to read. I spend far longer over my book list than my packing list and, if I’m honest, even longer than I spend choosing my destination. Deliberating between the literary flavour of the month versus something unread for years on the bookshelves, or even rereading an old favourite, is a vital stage of my holiday planning. And I’m not alone. One of the annual traditions of Barack Obama’s presidency was the announcement of his annual
summer holiday reading list. His final list in 2016 was:

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life • William Finnegan
The Girl on the Train • Paula Hawkins
H is for Hawk • Helen Macdonald
Seveneves • Neal Stephenson
The Underground Railroad • Colson Whitehead

And he’s certainly not the only statesman to pack actual books rather than an e-reader. A recent poll by Blackwells of MPs’ summer reading intentions was topped by Boris Johnson’s biography of Winston Churchill, The Churchill Factor. The list was packed with titles about the second world war and America but there was also room for:

The Night Manager • John Le Carré
I Am Pilgrim • Terry Hayes
The Poisonwood Bible • Barbara Kingsolver
The Art of Falling • Kim Moore
The Wolf Trial • Neil Mackay
The Immigration Handbook • Caroline Smith
A Spool of Blue Thread • Anne Tyler
Grandpa’s Great Escape • David Walliams

Looking further back, Napoleon was arguably the best read emperor the world has seen. Keen not to be separated from
reading matter while on campaigns, he commissioned various travel libraries from his personal librarian Antoine-Alexandre Barbier that contained hundreds of volumes and covered military tactics, history, geography and religion as well as novels, poetry and plays. He also ordered smaller, more manageable travel libraries in wooden boxes resembling a large book measuring 15 by 10 inches.These were stocked with French classics (including five volumes of Corneille and Voltaire, four of Racine) in smaller format, each bound in roan and tooled in gilt. As well as for his own use on campaigns, he gave sets to his generals.

The key challenge is to make sure you don’t run out of good reading material while you’re away. On his ‘Discovery’
expedition of 1901-04, as well as plenty of food and warm clothes, Captain Robert Falcon Scott also put together the impressive National Antarctic Expedition Library. Each section was arranged alphabetically by author. Its catalogue, including the precise location of each book on board, runs to 34 pages of closely typed entries. As a result we know that Scott kept all the Sir Walter Scotts and a good chunk of the travel books in his private cabin. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were on the Mess Deck, as were the popular hunting novels of Major George John Whyte-Melville, and 35 volumes of Punch magazine. The Dickens – including A Christmas Carol – were in the Ward Room, and Lieutenant Michael Barne had Jerome K Jeroeme’s Three Men in a Boat in his own quarters. Here’s part of the Arctic and Antarctic’s travel list.

Cook’s Voyages of Discovery • John Barrow
Voyages of Foxe and James • Miller Christy
First Crossing of Spitsbergen • Sir Martin Conway
With Ski and Sledge over Arctic Glaciers • Sir Martin Conway
Narrative of Voyage to South Seas • Charles M Goodridge
Danish Arctic Expeditions • CCA Gosch
Handbook of Arctic Discoveries • AW Greely
Three Years of Arctic Service • AW Greely

The question of access to books is even more complicated for some travellers. The astronauts on the International Space
Station are obviously busy people, but even they need time to relax. In addition to a well-stocked film cupboard, there are also plenty of books in their informal library.

Foundation and Empire • Isaac Asimov
Alien Infection • Darrell Bain
The Wishsong of Shannara • Terry Brooks
The Da Vinci Code • Dan Brown
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress • Robert Heinlein
Failure is not an option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and beyond • Gene Kranz 
Mars Is No Place for Children • Mary Turzillo
Around the World in Eighty Days • Jules Verne
The Jeeves Omnibus • PG Wodehouse

And finally here’s a rather sadder list. Not all books that arrive with their owners at hotels get to go home with them. The Travelodge chain produces an annual list of ‘left behinds’ in all their hotels. It has also drilled down to reveal which titles top the table. This is their most recent list:

Fifty Shades of Grey • EL James
My Time • Bradley WigginsA book of lists
Cheryl: My Story • Cheryl Cole

Poor old unwanted books. If you’re buying one for friends or family this festive period, remind them that a book is for life, not just Christmas.

Alex Johnson is the author of A Book of Book Lists: A Bibliophile’s Compendium, published this month by The British Library (£7.99). On his last holiday he read Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch, The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, How to Stop Time by Matt Haig, The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton, and Flashman’s Lady by George MacDonald Fraser.

 



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