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Just as important as a vacation destination: The books you read there

I brought a retired Chicago cop, an Irish bachelor farmer and some shambolic street toughs with me on my recent vacation to Portugal. They all appear in a novel by Tana French called “The Searcher,” which I packed in my carry-on luggage.

Why would I bring a book set in rural Ireland to Portugal when displayed nearby as I was shopping at Politics and Prose was a novel with a more apropos title: “Two Nights in Lisbon”? Well, I wasn’t sure I wanted another person’s descriptions of the city I’d be visiting interfering with my own experiences. Plus, the book jacket said Chris Pavone’s new novel is about a husband who mysteriously disappears during a trip with his wife to the Portuguese capital. That’s just the sort of crazy thing that would happen to me. I didn’t want to tempt fate.

But it did make me wonder: What makes a good vacation read? Is it a novel set in the city you’re in that provides a frisson of recognition every time you stumble upon a street corner or plaza where some plot point occurs? Is it a nonfiction book about that place that helps you understand its history, culture or architecture? Is it a biography of someone closely associated with that city?

Or is it something else entirely: an unrelated palate cleanser chosen to help reset the mind after a frenzied day of sightseeing? A vacation is supposed to be an escape. Would your escape benefit from escapist literature?

For me, picking the right book(s) to take on vacation is nearly as much fun as the vacation itself. I don’t always get it right. I managed to finish the first-person account by a survivor of the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed in the Andes and resorted to cannibalism, but it was a poor choice for a beach house on the Outer Banks. Somehow, though, “Moby Dick” was perfect for a rainy weekend at Chincoteague in the 1980s with my then-girlfriend. Would the relationship survive our being stuck in a small condo, each of us in our own corners, in our own heads? (Reader, I married her.)

Reading has the magical ability to transport us. Your body’s in one place, your mind in another. The setting of a book may be more important than the physical setting of the person reading it — I’d rather read a good book in a bad setting than a bad book in a good setting — but that doesn’t mean the two are unrelated. Just as the right wine can enhance a meal, so the right setting can enhance a book — and vice versa.

Occasionally, it all comes together: reading’s version of the Aristotelian unity of time, place and action. And it’s not only while on vacation. I sometimes like to read in the bathtub, where I can luxuriate in the amniotic suds, drying my fingers on a towel to turn the pages. I loved reading Jasper Fforde’s “Early Riser” — a fantasy novel about a world gripped by an ice age, where most humans hibernate to get through winter — as steam rose from the tub and frost painted the window pane.

I knew the Tana French paperback wouldn’t last me the whole vacation, and I looked forward to buying something in country, so to speak — if I could find a Portuguese bookstore that sold books in English. In Porto, we visited Livraria Lello, which has been called the world’s most beautiful bookstore. It’s an art nouveau masterpiece, a jewel box of carved-wood curlicues, stained-glass windows and a curving staircase painted crimson. Being inside the store made me want to drink absinthe.

Livraria Lello has become such a must-see that a line stretches out the door and you need a timed-entry ticket — 5 euros, good toward any purchase — just to get in.

The store isn’t organized like your typical Barnes & Noble. None of the titles are stamped in embossed foil like the thrillers that decorate airport newsstands. Lello chooses to organize books in unique ways, including by authors who have won the Nobel Prize in literature, deceased authors who should have won it, and those alive who might still. There’s a special section devoted to books by the only Portuguese Nobel laureate: José Saramago (1998).

To be honest, I knew nothing about the guy. But I figured: When in Rome … I picked up a paperback copy of “Blindness” and began reading: “The amber light came on. Two of the cars accelerated before the red light appeared. At the pedestrian crossing the sign of a green man lit up.”

Saramago never says where this city street is — in which country the novel’s events take place — but now that I’d been in Portugal (was there still!), I could imagine it in Portugal, around the corner from my hotel, near the tram stop, by the bakery …

“Yes,” I thought, carrying the book to the cashier, “this will do quite nicely.”

What are words for?

How do you decide what books you bring on vacation? Have you had an especially sublime experience with your choice — or a lousy one? Send the details — with “Reading Material” in the subject line — to me at john.kelly@washpost.com.

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