Traveling With Books

In a week and a half, I’m headed to France for a month. I’m taking students on a study-abroad tour sponsored by my university: the students will be in France for a whole semester, and I am with them for the first leg of the trip, in Alsace. During my part of the trip, the students stay with families for two weeks while I stay in a small apartment, and then we move into a hostel. I have my afternoons and weekends mostly free.

I say this not to make you jealous, but to ask: what should I read? I don’t have an e-reader (and am not sure I want one — I have serious problems with DRM and proprietary technology when it comes to books), so my usual mantra to pack light is in terrible jeopardy when I need to pack books for an entire month, including two transatlantic flights. Of course I can (and will) buy books in France, but again, that’s weight and cost I should try to be careful of if I can, considering that I’ll be carrying all my own luggage, hoisting it up to train racks myself, and so forth.

Here’s my current, tentative list. Tell me what you think — and what you would read on such a trip!

two dense books, not to be sped through too quickly: The Arabian Nights, translated by Husain Haddawy, and The Arabian Nights: A Companion, by Robert Irwin.

two spy novels, to be left in France or wherever I finish them: Shelley’s Heart and The Better Angels, both by Charles McCarry.

two books of literary fiction I’ve been wanting to read for some time: Love and Sleep, by John Crowley, and The Age of Dreaming, by Nina Revoyr.

one thick book I haven’t yet read, by a favorite author: Green Dolphin Country, by Elizabeth Goudge.

I am still considering adding something like Don Quixote, but am wavering. What’s your advice? How do you travel with, or without, books?

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18 Responses to Traveling With Books

  1. Teresa says:

    I’ve never had to pack books for a month’s travel, but even for a week’s travel, I’ve been known to take books I intend to leave behind. Must leave room in the suitcase for new books and souvenirs!

    And I’m a big fan of reading books set in the place where I’m going to travel. I read Day of the Triffids in London last year, for example, and I’m thinking I’ll take a Bronte book to Yorkshire this year.

  2. Packabook says:

    When in Rome? How about reading novels set in France while you are there, then you can check out the places in the novels.

    Books set in France

    And I think the only answer to packing books for that long, is to be prepared to take as many as you can and swap them when you’ve finished. English speaking backpackers are always desperate to swap books….


  3. Packabook says:

    Sorry – link didn’t work. You will find my ever-growing list of books set in France at if you are looking for inspiration….


  4. trapunto says:

    I’d warn you away from the Crowley, just because it is so good, you’ll be through it in a flash.

  5. bookssnob says:

    I’m jealous! A month in France…

    Well I have the same problem because I’m heading to Cape Town in March and have two 18 hour flights to fill…fun.

    Green Dolphin Country…how I long to read that book!

    I’d recommend an Irene Nemirovsky, or perhaps Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski…all set in France, and fantastic books to boot.

    Bon Vacances!

  6. Laura says:

    Having done a lot of travel with books, my best advice is to leave lots of space in your luggage. I made the mistake of taking books that I loved, and then couldn’t leave any behind. I agree with Suzi, it is also really worthwhile reading books set in the place where you are as it adds a whole other dimension to your travel. If you’re headed to France, what about The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbary? Or A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel (very long and set in Paris during the French Revolution)?

  7. I’d recommend books set in France too; I suggest Les Liaisons Dangereuses or Colette or Zola or The Elegance of the Hedgehog or Victor Hugo (Les Miserables or Hunchback are both so chunky that they would keep you occupied).

    I pack my books for going on holiday as if I am going to be deserted on an island; I plan for some time and choose them carefully.

    Enjoy! I am most envious and please have le macaron for me.

  8. Packabook says:

    Wow – two recommendations for Elegance of the Hedgehog. I am reading that one right now. Am not very far in, but so far, although it is set in Paris, there hasn’t been much going on OUTSIDE the building….

    Still, am enjoying it, and hoping we will soon start seeing a bit of Paris itself…


  9. Aarti says:

    I am jealous, enough if you said you didn’t want us to be by telling us about your trip!

    An excellent, massive doorstopper of a book set during the French Revolution is Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. It’s excellent. I also think a good trilogy to read would be Sandra Gulland’s Josephine B. trilogy about Josephine and Bonaparte. I LOVED that.

  10. Your list sounds basically perfect to me.

  11. Jenny says:

    Thank you so much to everyone who offered such delicious suggestions! As I am a French professor, I read books by French authors and set in France on a regular basis for both business and pleasure, so I hadn’t thought to include those specially on my list. Instead, I may go to French bookstores while I’m there and see what I can forage (including the French version of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which is on my TBR…) The Mantel sounds excellent, and the Nemirovsky has been languishing on my shelf waiting for me to have the time to read it, so perhaps the time is now!

    Claire, I, too, pack as if I were going to be marooned somewhere with no literary resources. I wonder why. I know quite well I can buy things in France (and they also have public libraries.) Yet I feel if I don’t have a book for every occasion, I am somehow bereft.

    Amateur Reader, you are a listmaker after my own heart.

  12. Oh being able to pick up some French texts and reading them in the original sounds fabulous, especially for The Elegance of the Hedgehog (did you know there has been a film adaptation made? It hasn’t been released yet in US or UK). I’d love to be fluent in French and be able to read books untranslated.

  13. Jenny says:

    I pack books like a crazy person when I am going on holiday – when I went to London for ten days, I believe I brought eleven books. It might be a good idea to add another nonfiction book into the mix – something you’ve always wanted to learn more about and never had the time.

  14. JaneGS says:

    My book packing strategy is this
    1) Always take a tried and true backup (e.g., always an Austen) in case I find what else I’ve packed doesn’t hit the mark–these are all on my iphone Stanza app so that’s easy.
    2) Take something from the TBR stack–if not now, when?
    3) Take something with bite-sized consumables (short stories, poems, essays) because when I travel I still want to read but often don’t have the time/focus for a megawork.
    4) Take something thrilling to read on the plane

    Your strategy seems sound–favorite author, thrillers for discard, but not so sure about the dense books. Wouldn’t work for me to read dense books while traveling.

  15. rebeccareid says:

    Oh but I AM jealous. So cool. I’m trying to talk my husband in to going to Paris but it never seems in the budget.

    I recently read Haddawy’s book and about half oft he companion. The companion is more literary criticism of all the stories, not something that helps you understand it, fyi. I really enjoyed Haddawy’s translation of Arabian Nights. So delightful!

  16. Christopher Lord says:

    I always travel with books. A combination of books I will bring back, and some I will leave on the plane. I just had to cancel a trip to New Zealand because of a broken ankle, but here are some I was considering: Noah’s Compass, the new Anne Tyler, The Birthday Party by Ruth Rendell (always a Rendell or Barbara Vine if one is available), The Family by Jeff Sharlet (because it sounds so frightening), A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (because I saw the movie).

    Do not take Don Quixote. This is just one opinion, but I don’t think even the Grossman translation lets it stand the test of time like War and Peace, Middlemarch, Bleak House, or the other titanic novels of the modern era (I am ambivalent about Les Miserables, but since you’re going to France…)

    Or throw all of those out the window, buy a stack of cozy mysteries, and revel in the pure enjoyment of reading light fiction.

    I hope you have a safe and memorable journey.

    Dangerous Liaisons if you haven’t read it, because it’s even more wicked than the movie. But it requires your attention, something not always possible on vacation.

    Alice Munro has a new collection out, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth is now in paperback. Those would be most worthy, and short stories have their virtues on vacation as well.

    And it would be remiss of me, as the Dickensian nonpareil of your regular commenters, if I didn’t recommend Tale of Two Cities, even though I admit it does not belong with the best of Dickens’s achievements.

    I’d also be tempted to try to find Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall or The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters that has been getting such interesting reviews.

    So many books, so little time…

  17. Melissa says:

    I’ve packed for month long European trips before and I always pack a LOT of books. I once ran out while in France, but it all worked out ok.

    I would highly recommend packing books that won’t be hard to pick up and put down. So maybe pass on the intense concentration and complicated character names (like Crime and Punishment). Also packing a bunch of smaller books (300 pages or so) allows you to lighten your load as you go. You can leave books at hotels and hostels when you finish them instead of carrying a 700 page book around for an extra week.

    I also love the idea of reading books set in the place your visiting and always try to do that. A couple good nonficitons I would recommend are Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” and “Time Was Soft There” by Jeremy Mercer.

    Happy reading and traveling!!!

  18. Jenny says:

    Claire — reading books untranslated is a lot of fun. It just makes me frustrated when I’m reading, say, Russian or Portuguese texts, though.

    Jenny — nonfiction is a very good idea, thanks.

    Jane — if I don’t take something dense, I’ll get through it all too quickly!

    Christopher — wonderful suggestions! My mother used to read A Tale of Two Cities every time we went to France for years (she is the biggest Dickens fan I know.) And thanks for the vote on Don Quixote. I probably won’t take it.

    Melissa — thanks for reminding me of the Hemingway. That’s been on my TBR for ages.

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