I hate deciding which book to read. The smallest things sway me. A seagull overhead makes me reach for Lord Jim. The temperature drops to minus one and I’m hunkering down with Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. If I feel slightly nauseous, I start ransacking bookshops and libraries for a biography of Princess Di, while a paper cut sends me scouring hospital shelves for I Am Legend. Holidays are bad; I unpack and repack my suitcase so many times. Here’s how it goes.
“Do you really need four pairs of trainers and your boots?” my girlfriend—the Horrible Oracle—says, looking on in disbelief as I try to find room for Mr. Adidas, Mr. Dunlop, Mr. Nike, and Mr. Puma.
“You’re only going for six days.”
“Yeah, but …” is my measured response.
“And why do you need so many books? It’s not as if you aren’t going to buy any while you’re there,” the H.O. says, peering over my shoulder into my bag.
I hate that. Criticizing one’s packing is like criticizing one’s foreplay.
“As if you’re even going to open …” —the H.O. picks a book from amongst my underwear, holding it between two fingers as if it were a struggling crab—“The Order of Things.”
“I might,” I say.
“You won’t,” she says.
I know she’s right. I replace it with Derrida’s The Postcard.
“Splutter, snort, cough,” says the H.O. “You don’t need five books.”
“I do,” I say, weakly. “One for the flight there. It’s 11 hours, you know. One book for every two days I’m there. And one for the flight back. Five.”
“I thought you were going there to write, to get away from it all. You won’t have time to read if you’re getting away from it all.”
“Well, I need them,” I say, gathering them to my chest like smother-threatened kittens.
“Why don’t you just take an Elmore Leonard?”
“I’ve been saving these for the trip,” I say pointing to David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion, William Hazlitt’s Collected Essays, Colm Toibin’s The Master, and Joyce Carol Oates’s The Falls, as if they were survival packs for an assault on Everest.
“For one, why are you taking hardbacks? For two, you know you only read crime when you’re on holiday. What about Walter Mosley?”
“I’m not going on holiday. I’m working,” I say.
“Working? You’re staying in Hermosa Beach. You’re gonna be writing, drinking, eating, sunbathing, not necessarily in that order.”
“Unh,” I say. “S’pose.” I replace The Master with Pronto. Hazlitt with Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, and The Falls with Hunter S Thompson’s Rum Diary.
“The D.F.W. stays,” I say, standing my ground.
“What about the Derrida?”
“Have a heart,” I say, “the guy’s just died.”
“Like, he’s gonna worry,” the H.O. says.
“O.K.,” I say and replace Jackie D with Martin Amis’s Experience.
“You’ve read that, like, a squillion times,” the H.O. screeches, “And it’s bigger than the Derrida.”
“I know,” I say, but I want something familiar in case I don’t like the others.
She turns and storms into the kitchen to make the loudest cup of tea in the history of elevenses.
“What time is it?”
“9 o’clock,” the H.O. says.
“Where’s the cab?”
“You booked it for 9.”
“I know. Where is it?”
“It’ll be here.”
“Call them and ask where it is.”
“No. Be patient.”
“Give it five minutes. You have plenty of time.”
I scan the bookshelves in case there is something I’ve bought recently. I pull down a Lethem, a Chabon and an Ames. Or maybe a classic—a Flaubert, a Dickens, or a Gide. Or comedy—a Leyner, a Sedaris, or a Twain.
“What are you mumbling about now?”
“Nothing. Just checking—passport, tickets—yep.”
“Your cab is outside, sir.”
“Right. See ya,” I say hauling my bag out of the door.
“Oh, yeah. Love you, too.”
“Have a good time. Call when you get there.”
“I will. Bye.”
I read two of the books I took with me, bought another six, read one of those and had to leave one behind because it was making my suitcase look like Frank Cannon.
Holidays are bad for me but when I’m ill—oh, man, I’m even worse. A few weeks ago, my head was full of cold and my sinuses were screeching like tortured eaglets and, after the fiftieth attempt to read the first few pages of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, my rheumy eyes, like Ping-Pong balls in aspic, scanned the bookshelves for something less taxing for my pink and trembling brain. I do enjoy Elmore Leonard but I was worried that an abundance of gore might trigger my gag reflex and I feared not being able to cope with simultaneous gobbets of vomit and phlegm. I decided against Hiaasen. Laughter—another gag reflex?—would have made me cough and my chest felt like it was both a trampoline for obese grizzly bears and catacombs for buried-alive, emphysematous seagulls. I considered Ellroy—my attention span was just about on the A.D.D.–level of his sentences—I believe Ellroy is the anti–Henry James—but I tried a few pages and realized I’d read them all. I decided on Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent. I bought the Turow on recommendation from Nick Hornby’s review in The Believer. I’ve only ever read Hornby’s Fever Pitch—not much caring for his fiction—so why I bought it on his recommendation is anyone’s guess, probably because I couldn’t find anything else to buy. Book-buying is an addiction—if they ever made it illegal, I’d end up doing life. Presumed Innocent—I hadn’t seen the film, so had no idea of the plot, the development, the ending. I guessed the end about a third of the way through—psychic Neptunian squid on an intergalactic bowling-tournament vacation visit Earth for some oceanic R&R and are kidnapped by their own tapeworms. Held for ransom, the Neptunian squid are finally executed Mexican style: they are dressed in ponchos and have large moustaches drawn on them with indelible marker pens. Blindfolded with tie-dyed Taco Bell napkins, their bodies riddled by M&M–packed blunderbusses, the Neptunians die a lonely death far from their aqueous planet. Hold on, that’s not Presumed Innocent.. The plot of Presumed Innocent revolves around an 11th-century pope called Paul but—and here’s the twist—everyone presumes his name is … Oh, I can’t remember. Suffice to say the novel was a good way of getting through days full of hacking coughs, sore throats, a runny nose, explosive sneezes, and achy muscles. Now what am I going to read next?