Choosing books to take on holiday

Holiday time. Time for sunshine, and sand in uncomfortable places. Time to crack open a book, or crack into a stack if you’re feeling ambitious (and/or unthreatened by luggage weight limits).

So how do you decide what to take? Guess what’s coming. IT’S A BUNCH OF TIPS.

Don’t go overboard on virtue

Don’t pack five man bookers that you hate but you WILL read. This is the literary equivalent of courgetti and crossfit #readclean #intellectualRIGOUR.

Just take one (per week). One solid, wholesome officially endorsed Good Book™. The kind of book that provokes long essays, maybe a ‘classic’. This book is your rewarding struggle, and better to struggle on a beach or by the pool than rammed in someone’s armpit on the tube.

Balance out the Good Book™ 

In case you take a mental beating by the Good Book™, you’re might want an easier read to hand. This doesn’t mean trashy romance. Take a book that has a good story (hello Agatha Christie) or an old favourite.

Explore the back catalogue of so and so 

Got one book you love and you’ve never had chance to read more by the author? This is your chance. Make them your travel companion.

Use a Kindle

I’m usually a committed fan of paper, but a Kindle means freedom to take more books and download more books if you run out. The only negative is your can’t dry it out if you drop it in the pool.


In the aim of practicing what I preach, here are the books I’m taking away.

Holiday-books

  • More Tim Winton (Aussie genius, lots of scorched earth, rolling seas and complex relationships)
  • More A.M.Homes (SO good at describing tortured souls, sharp, (darkly) funny writing)
  • To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (The Good Book™)
  • The Rendezvous, Daphne du Maurier (The good old-fashioned story)

Not this time –

  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (I love it, I love her, I love that people are loving it at the moment, but maybe a fifth read is a bit much)
  • Romantic Outlaws, Charlotte Gordon (it’s MASSIVE, saving it for when there’s no weight limits)
  • The American Future, Simon Schama (I generally read a lot of non-fiction, having a rest)

Anyone got any holiday reading recommendations? Got your own strategy for picking books? Set that comment box to work.

True Crime done right

The ‘true crime’ genre comes with a lot of baggage – lurid covers, dehumanised killers and pulpy writing all too often neglect reality. But done right true crime books can offer insight into the worst humanity has to offer (and satisfy our unshakeable morbid interests). Here’s three books which shed the seediness of the genre.

fact: books about crime must involve the colours red, white and black.

The Run of his Life: The People vs OJ Simpson – Jeffrey Toobin 

In 1994 Nicole Simpson, wife of OJ Simpson, American football icon, was murdered along with visitor to Nicole’s house, Ron Goldman. All the evidence suggested they were killed by OJ but the country was divided on his innocence – and remains so. In fact fascination with OJ has crested again recently with the TV adaption of Toobin’s book, The Run of his Life: The People vs OJ Simpsonwinning  9 Emmys and the 8 hour documentary ‘OJ Made in America’ winning an Oscar. It seems this thorn in the American psyche is no closer to working its way out. Toobin’s book picks apart and holds up to the light not just the murder but the various factors that escalated it into something much much bigger

Read for: a better understanding of how a murder blew up into a major cultural event

Helter Skelter – Vincent Bugliosi 

Vincent Bugliosi took on a serious challenge when he chose to write a book about Charles Manson – a man who manages to wear both the mantles of murderer and icon. However Bugliosi’s precise writing and prosecutor’s eye for detail makes quick work of untangling Charles Manson, the cult leader responsible for committing crimes using his ‘family’.

Read for: a better understanding of how charismatic figures can do extraordinary damage

Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son – Gordon Burn 

Peter Sutcliffe (also known as the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’) murdered 13 women around Leeds and Bradford. Burn’s book puts Sutcliffe under the microscope, going deep into his biography and the history and culture of the area he grew up in. Burn lays out the facts starkly, swapping from social observation to murder minutiae with barely a stop for breath. He offers no simple explanation (such a thing doesn’t exist), just a careful excavation of a time, a place and a man using selections from wide-ranging interviews.

Read for: a better understanding of how motives can be incredibly complex

Other true crime books on my reading list (recommendations welcome):

In Cold Blood (Truman Capote) – often dubbed the ‘original’ true crime book
Columbine (Dave Cullen) – well thought of for dispelling many of the myths that sprung up around the Columbine school shooting

I like big (awkwardly big) books and I cannot lie

Look it’s the list that no one was asking for – a list of books chosen for their size! (Fun fact: the British Library arrange the tens of thousands of books in their catalogue according to size, not alphabetically, to make use of their limited space).

Here are some great, unwieldy books that will render any commute unmanageable and small bookshelves insufficient – but are definitely worth the arm ache.

(hands included for scale)

1. Letters of Note Vol 1 & 2

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Not that long ago the busy network that covered the country wasn’t wifi, it was post. Letters were born across countries, as if by current, stuffed in mailboxes, thumbed, scribbled on, read, and reread. Records of relationships, historic events, mundane events – poetry, songs, fury, all trapped in envelopes across the world.

Sean Usher waded through these letters to find the best of the best and produced a (large) book called Letters of Note (and then a second one not long after). Both feature letters from all sorts of different people, from presidents and rockstars to soldiers and poets. They are remarkable catalogues of humanity (like the opposite of an Argos catalogue).

2.Lists of Note

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After the success of Letters, Usher turned his attention to lists. Can lists really be as interesting as letters? Turns out yes. Lists of Note features Evelyn Lincoln’s list of suspects in the JFK assassination (scribbled aboard Air Force One, just hours after the murder), Galileo’s shopping list, the list of all 54 rejections David Markson received for experimental novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress and F.Scott Fitzgerald’s list of conjugations for ‘cocktail’ (Imperative: Cocktail!), amongst others.

3. New Yorker Book of Cartoons

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A big beast of a book stuffed full of all the cartoons you could ever want, sorted chronologically. Good for getting a taste of history, bad if you have no upper body strength.

4. A Decade in the Shithouse

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All the hilarious Modern Toss comics in one convenient retrospective equals ‘2kg of 21st century bollocks’.

The Quiet Magic of the Happy Reader

Once every 4 months something comes through my letterbox that doesn’t simply land on the doormat as a brief stop off on the journey to the bin. It’s a magazine called The Happy Reader.

past issues of the happy reader

The Happy Reader is a ‘Bookish Quarterly’ that has found a place somewhere in between the posturing of instagram #bibliophiles and #booklovers and the sombre scholars of review magazines. It takes the best of both worlds, no doubt thanks to it being a collaboration between Fantastic Man and Penguin, and combines a meticulous attention to design with a focus on what’s ultimately important: reading.

Each issue (there’s only been eight) is split in two, the first half an in depth interview with a famous figure about books, the second half a series of essays on topics loosely related to the book that’s the focus of that issue. The topics these essays have covered include: a history of recent volcanic events (Issue no. 4 – The Purple Cloud), the symbolism of Big Ben (Issue No. 7 – Mrs Dalloway), an investigation of the diatribes of Alex Jones (Issue no. 8 – O Pioneers!) and an ode to Barneys, the department store (Issue no.5 – Au Bonheur Des Dames). The short pieces of writing form a delightful pick and mix, made all the sweeter for following a deep reflective interview.

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It’s creators have pulled off a clever trick – The Happy Reader is both of books and not of books. It certainly feels more intimately connected with books more than any other magazine: reading it feels much like browsing in a well-stocked bookshop, you’re never sure quite what you’re going to pull off the shelf; the paper it’s printed on feels closer to the pages of a paperback than the glossy sheen, or stiff matte, of its contemporaries; its typeface is a serif; it’s the size of a large hardback.

But The Happy Reader, thankfully, is not trying to be a book, just bookish. Which means we get clever, unique additions that exploit the freedom of the magazine form, like the Snippets page, small alongside-the-text notes and versatility in colour and design.

the happy reader interesting bits

One of the frequent notes you find scattered through the pages of The Happy Reader

Perhaps the other significant admirable quality of The Happy Reader is its restraint. Its website is spartan, it has no ‘social media presence’, no ‘You’ll never guess the ending to this book!’ articles. It simply hasn’t put workers on the crowded content-factory floor. Perhaps this is because of budget (there are no lurid designer ads inside), perhaps it is a play to the increasing nostalgia for things that are physical and enduring. Either way it’s refreshing: here is a magazine that feels perfectly crafted for readers.

The Little Black Book Project 

Yesterday I started to write down every book I remember reading during my childhood.

It’s the beginning of something I’m calling the ‘The Little Black Book Project’. I’m aiming to write down every single book I read, inspired by my grandma who did the same.

I could just start now, aged 25, but it seems a cop out. I’d miss out on documenting so many of the books that, cue quavering-speech-voice, made me who I am today. So I’m going back, all the way back, to ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ and ‘Spot the dog’.

I’m remembering the heroes I found in books: Ellen MacArthur, the sailor, ploughing through stinging water, spray not dampening a fierce determination to be quicker than anyone else; Baldmoney, Sneezewort and Dodder building their coracle to find their lost friend; the wonderfully named mouse who balances fighting evil with building watches; the boy who could hear pictures; the girl with the nunga nunga’s, and Adrian, who just wanted Pandora to love him.

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Any joy, however, is tempered by a grinding frustration. Did I actually read that? Why won’t google understand ‘boy, magic, clock’ isn’t Harry Potter? What was that series called with the dragon? Hopefully this project will save me from some of the pain of a fallible memory in future. In the meantime, frustration is a small price to pay for rediscovering old friends.

HIIT in book form

You know that thing that every spiralising #cleaneater worth their coconut oil bangs on about – high intensity interval training, where you do bursts of hard exercise? Well these books are like that for your brain, but with less pain, lycra and hashtags. Think short, sharp bursts of writing that’ll do you the world of good.

1. Sum – Dave Eagleman

A set of very short stories that imagine the possible afterlives waiting for us, ranging in strangeness, from God being a microbe to an afterlife where you exist at every age.

2. One Million Tiny Plays About Britain – Craig Taylor

Craig Taylor eavesdropped on Britain, and turned what he heard into a wide reaching set of small plays about ‘ordinary people’. They switch between heartbreaking, funny and frightening so fast it’s like walking down a street hearing snatches of peoples lives.

3. True Tales of American Life – Paul Auster

Esteemed writer Paul Auster went on America’s National Public Radio and asked for stories that were true but sounded like fiction. He chose 179 out of the 4000 he received and compiled them under themes like ‘strangers’, ‘families’ and ‘slapstick’. Maybe there are answers in here about what’s happened to America.

4. The World’s Wife – Carol Ann Duffy

Carol Ann Duffy writes poems from the perspectives of the wives of famous men, giving scathing, hilarious voices to the women history forgot.

My favourite:

Mrs Icarus – Carol Ann Duffy

I’m not the first or the last
to stand on a hillock
watching the man she married
prove to the world
he’s a total, utter, absolute Grade A pillock.

Grey Matters – great books about the brain

It is a book of great merit that discusses the brain without causing an existential crisis in the reader (and one of even greater merit that turns such a crisis into something that’s at least entertaining).

Here are a few of the books I’ve read that managed to pull off that trick; covering topics like brains, psychology and mental health accessibly and candidly.

The Brain, the Story of You – Dave Eagleman

Who better to explain the brain that an enthusiastic American neuroscientist who’s a professor at Stanford? This book is the paper form of David Eaglemen’s TV series and offers a quick tour of the workings of your brain along with a few eye-opening case studies.

Do No Harm – Henry Marsh

Not one for reading on the commute, or when you’re feeling emotionally vulnerable, Do No Harm is written by neurosurgeon (and unfairly wonderful writer) Henry Marsh (nb his wife, Kate Fox, is an anthropologist and writer who wrote an opus about the weird habits of the English). Marsh’s book tells stories of saving lives, and not saving them – defeating tumours and being defeated. It’s honesty is painful, but welcome.

The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves- Stephen Grosz

Psychoanalysis (at least in the UK) is a bit of a dirty word, maybe all the Oedipal stuff scared us off, yet Grosz, a psychoanalyst, presents a series of cases in a style that is quite convincing.

The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks

No list of brain books would be complete without an entry from late neurologist Oliver Sacks. His prolific and often pioneering work has covered topics like autism, hallucinations (auditory and visual), tourettes, dementia, colour blindess – the list only goes on. In this book, like many of his others, he discusses some of the extraordinary cases he’s handled in his noted compassionate style.

Falling into the fire: A Psychiatrist’s Encounters with the Mind in Crisis – Christine Montross

Falling into the fire is no exaggeration – in this book psychiatrist Christine Montross shares stories of those enduring the worst of mental health problems. Despite the often startling experiences of her patients Montross never veers towards sensationalism, she demonstrates deftly to the reader (in case there was any doubt) that her patients are not exhibits to be peered at, they’re unwell people to be helped.

The Psychopath Test – Jon Ronson

Disclaimer: I will always recommend Jon Ronson with his nice voice and his eye for the absurd. In this book he investigates an area of mental health diagnosis as slippery as its subject: psychopathy.