West Gippsland Gazette – 21 October 1913
On the whole I think the best literature to take away with one on a holiday is to be found in a railway time-table and a guide-book. And by a guide-book I do not mean one of those eloquent volumes of tosh about travel which are in the fashion nowadays—volumes in which the authors tell you ever so little about interesting places and make up for it by telling you ever so much about their uninteresting selves. Books of this kind, apart from the twenty or so in which the authors have taken pains with their literature, if not with their places, I strictly abominate. Yes, almost the only guide-book worth its room is an ugly little book of maps and hard facts—distances and dates and populations, and the heights of mountains (which I never climb), and the briefest references to history, with no excursions into scenery or facetiousness, and only the merest flicks of humor and romance in passing.
Most people profess a contempt for guide-books as though they killed the sense of originality in travelling. But we might as well decry finger posts. For myself, when I am in any neighborhood, I like to take fifty journeys hither and thither on the map for one that I ever accomplish on my legs or on that invention of sin, the motor char-a-bane.
I like to know that there is a rocking stone somewhere near on the side of a hill, and that Anne Boleyn’s great niece kept an inn in a village twenty-eight miles away, and that St. Somebody built the forerunner of the local church and all the legends about him, and what it cost the Borough Council to build the pier which was destroyed in last winter’s gales, and what Thackeray said about the place when he passed through it in his cheerful, uncomprehending way in the reign of Victoria. And, on these and kindred matters, you will find a good guide-book worth more than a hundred Shakespeares.
On the other hand, holiday-makers should be urged not to obtrude their guilde-books in public places, or to wear them brazenly as though they were part of their summer clothes. Used in that way, a guide-book becomes as unseemly as check knicker-bouckers or a pair of yellow hoots. It should be kept secret like your conscience. Refer to it modestly as though you were asking advice of a clergyman. He—or she–who flaunts a guide-book in church or street, on hill-side or river, is an offender against the decencies, a murrderer of landscape.
So much in behalf of guide-books. Obviously the time-table as a book of hard facts stands on tie same grounds of usefulness. It enables the imagination to take trips to the names of places, which even the humblest pocket can afford. More than this, it tells us of all sorts of quiet little horse services and steamer services which are still going on in country parts on the edge of railway civilisation and to discover which is one of the childish pleasures of travel. Still better, it gives us the dates of the fairs and markets, those busy little worlds of color and movement and country thrills. Fairs and markets, on the whole beat anything that can be looked at except hills and the sea. The book that tells me where and when a fair or market is to be held is, in my opinion, the best holiday book.
But, to be quite honest, none of us has the courage to go far from home without any literature beyond the books I have mentioned. We store books in our bag out of a kind of terror of what will happen on a rainy day. It is to our burden of books, indeed—the heaviest thing known except lead—that many of our charges for excess luggage are probably due.
Personally, I confess to the cowardice of never going anywhere without a book. I must have half-a-dozen books with me though I read none. And the books which I like best to have are not brilliant and exciting stories, but books which you can open at any page at random and find good—books over which the we can wander in a wise laziness as over a landscape. Perhaps the best books of the kind are Montaigne’s “Essays” and “Tristram Shandy,” and Sir Thomas Browne, and Lamb’s or Walpole’s Letters, and a selection of Browning. There was a time when I would not for worlds have left Stevenson’s “Virginibus Puerisque” out of the list. Perhaps those who are still using their first shaving stick find it a golden book even to-day. Or have all its school-boy heresies turned commonplace with age.
It is one of the first signs of middle age when one takes to reading letters instead of Stevenson’s essays. It is an even surer sign when one can no longer enjoy the heroic contrast of atmospheres which one used to achieve by reading a dark author like Baudelaire beside the sea. But Baudelaire fades, and the sea remains, and “Where lies the land to which yon ship must go?” seems worth all that he ever wrote. Perhaps it is that Baudelaire never wrote a loafing book. It is because volumes of letters are essentially such loafing books that they make almost perfect holiday reading. And, if you are afraid of the monotony of reading one man’s letters, you cannot do better than take with you an anthology of letters like Mr Dawson’s “Great English Letter-Writers,” or Mr E. V. Lucas’s “Second Post.” I mention these not necessarily as the best, but as the best I have read.
It is clear, however, that tastes differ in reading as in other things. Some people can go out among the sand-hills with the larks springing about them, and absorb themselves in a Horner’s Penny Story, and others can grow rosy and fat reading ”Jude the Obscure” among the rocks. As for the latter, there is no doubt that any excellent book will hold you during your holiday as at any other season—Mr Conrad’s “Twixt Land and Sea,” Mr Bentley’s “Trent’s Last Case,” or Mr Squire’s “Steps to Parnassus.” And for this reason, most people will find it not at all a bad plan to read in August exactly the same kind of thing they would enjoy in January.
At the same time, I think it no unreasonable policy to take at least three kinds of books with you when you go holidaying—a book about saints and a book about sinners and a book of some poet to keep for certain moods of exultation (though, as a matter of act, in presence of these moods the poets have a way of seeming statues of the dead). As for the books about sinners, my own favorite of the kind is “Tristam Shandy,” which many find repulsive and others humorless. To me it seems a great comic version of the brotherhood of man.
As for the poets, again, any good poet will do. And “The Little Flowers of St. Francis” is as pleasant a holiday book about saints as anyone need ask for, and a good counterweight for more roguish literature. These all make excellent holiday reading to pack in a bag. And it may be that holiday reading in a bag is, as I have already hinted, holiday reading in the right place.