Howard Jacobson: Beaches and books just don't go together

Holiday reading

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Will somebody please explain to me what "Holiday Reading" is? I'm not asking for recommendations.

I want to know what's meant by it. Is it a specific genre, like the misery memoir, only presumably the very opposite to the misery memoir? Is it determined by a congenial subject: a happy-ending romance cooled by summer breezes? Or by congenial place: a grown-up version – though not too much of a grown-up version – of Five Go Doolally in Dorset? Is holiday reading about holidays, or is it a promise that nothing will be demanded of the reader that will take his/her mind from a holiday which anyone would think, given the spirit in which lists of holiday reading are compiled, is invariably a thing of sunshine, lovingness and bliss.

But that's not a truth about most holidays, is it? Aren't holidays essentially opportunities to break up with the people we thought we loved? Don't we realise how much we hate our children on holidays or, if we're the children, how much we hate our parents? There are photographs in my mother's possession which attest to the living hell I made of every family holiday. In snap after snap, there are my mother and father making the best of the lousy weather and the appalling food – we're talking the 1950s when the sun never shone and all we ate was peas – and there I am with the same long face, not wanting to be there, but then again not wanting to have been left behind. That's me bawling in Blackpool; that's me moping in Morecambe; that one's taken the time I sulked myself into the measles, chicken pox, whooping cough, and very nearly, had I got my way, malaria in Anglesey.

And why? That's easy to answer. Sex. I needed sex. I might have been no more than seven or eight with not the slightest idea of what sex comprised, but I needed it. Holidays do this. They heat your blood and turn your head. I saw men strolling down the promenade hand in hand with their girlfriends and I longed for a girlfriend of my own. To be honest, what I think I longed for even more than a girlfriend was a mistress. I'd heard the word, formed a dim conception of what it meant, imagined kissing had something to do with it, and hankered for one of my own. That's me at Middleton Towers Holiday Camp stamping my foot and shouting "I want a mistress".

Nothing I've observed of other people on holiday leads me to believe they have a better time of it than I did. I used to help run a craft centre in a clapped-out water mill in Cornwall. The usual thing – a Delabole slate etcher specialising in hunchbacked blue-tits, a reclusive wood-turner who wouldn't turn if anyone was watching, two tatooed jewellers of indeterminate sex who squabbled in front of the public, a glass blower who was the subject of predictable ribaldry, about which she could hardly complain as she would get pissed blind on hot days and take her top off regardless of the families streaming through.

Awful glass she blew, but nice breasts, as I recall. Had I encountered her when I was seven or eight I'd have screamed the place down until my parents persuaded her to be my mistress for the afternoon. Working there, whatever its attractions, taught me how horrible holidays are for most families, even if they aren't cursed with a boy-pervert like me. Because it's on holiday that couples get to re-acquaint themselves with one another and discover how little there is left to like or talk about. Parents who've been working hard all year and have barely seen their offspring now wish they didn't have to see them at all and can't wait for work to begin again. Through the craft centre these poor souls would troop in their dripping kagools, pushing prams, squabbling, skint, each one's idea of a good time clashing with the other's – not that there was a good time on offer for any of them – like the damned in Dante's Inferno.

You take my point. Shouldn't that be what they're reading when they come on holiday – Dante's Inferno? There's powerful stuff on cruelty to children in The Brother's Karamazov. Death in Venice is good on art and fatal sexual obsession on the Lido, and you could always skip the art and get quickly to the fatal Lido bit. Wouldn't that make ideal beach reading, whatever beach reading is?

Help me here. What's a beach book? I assume it's similar to a holiday book but with the specific requirement of being sand-proof, water-repellent, and not so heavy in physical form or emotional content as to spill you out of your deck chair the minute you open it. Explain it to me: why would you want to read on something as uncomfortable as a deck chair on something as unconducive to concentration as a beach? All those distractions, all those echoing shrieks, people jet-skiing and paragliding, babies crying, children drowning – unless it's a lonely beach but then you'd want to walk along it, wouldn't you, hand in hand with your mistress with whom you might indeed want to share a book later on in your hotel room, when the moon's up, but it wouldn't be anything on the routine holiday reading lists: it would be Antony and Cleopatra, Les Liasons Dangereuses, Lady Chatterley's Lover or, if you're ready for a little intimate abstraction, L'érotisme by Georges Bataille.

Holiday reading, beach reading, summer reading – what next? Winter equinox reading, midweek reading, Sunday reading, middle-aged reading, death-bed reading? Books to read when you're wearing a frock as opposed to when you're wearing jeans? Books that go with your trainers? Books to read on clifftops, books to read while you're snowboarding, books to read while you're fighting in Afghanistan?

According to his wife, the critic F R Leavis took Othello and that other great work of sexual jealousy The Kreutzer Sonata away on their honeymoon. We laughed, we students of Leavis, when we heard that. But we laughed with a sneaking regard. It was an example to us all. Stay serious. Serious is more fun than not serious. And if you want a holiday from serious, try being more serious still. The dichotomy between great works of literature and the books we "secretly" enjoy is a false one. Trashy novels are less enjoyable to read than good ones. The greater the book the more pleasure it gives. Holidays are hideous enough already: why make them even worse with dross?

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