I’m not sure what it says that on my first visit to Las Vegas, 40 years ago this summer, I was reading William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. A rising high school senior, I was traveling by car with my parents and uncle. We stopped on the way to Los Angeles, and I got a lot of reading done while the adults gambled. We stayed at what was then the Mint, and I remember looking up from a page about scriptural arcana and gazing from my air-conditioned cubbyhole over desert stretching to the mountains. Mostly there’s stuff there now.
Blatty’s book, later ruined for me by the swivel-head-monster movie, was a fascinating exegesis of the religion into which I had been baptized, and so one of the best road reads I’ve had, each leg of interstate a passage in the protagonist priest’s roving research.
Like many readers, I select reading for a journey, seeking distraction on long flights and an undemanding companion at my destinations. Not sure why the easy beach read is such a convention—is relief from challenge another chocolate on the pillow? In any event, my favorites are fellow travelers. A few years after my Vegas diversion, I found myself in London’s Faber & Faber bookstore, looking for something to read on a train, and chose to follow Christopher Isherwood’s Down There on a Visit while rolling to Cambridge.
Books about travel, both novels and memoirs, make perfect seatmates. The narrator’s ramble colors the reader’s adventure and lends the air of a journey to a tourist trip. The best travel writers are like the best sportswriters—some might say they chose subjects unworthy of their talents, but others know they elevate the field, suss out its joys and ironies. Writers such as Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson dress their learning in a rumpled rain poncho.
At any destination, too, the reader finds local booksellers. Most books are ideal souvenirs—you can always fit one more on top of your dirty socks. In Manhattan recently, I dropped by the Strand bookstore for the first time in many years. Once an amiable chaos, it has somewhat upscaled itself, but that did not keep me from the travel section. I’m looking for an out-of-print Robert Byron book, First Russia, Then Tibet. I could find it online, but I think Byron, an ace wanderer between the wars, would prefer I find it abroad.