Vacuous vacation thoughts

The etymology behind the word “vacation” reveals a Latin root with a late medieval French twist.

“Vacare” is a Latin word that means “to become empty,” which makes sense when you think of other derivatives like vacant, evacuate and vacuum. Around the 14th century the French “vacacion” had come to mean freedom or release from obligations or activities, and by the late 19th century we had Americanized the term as the equivalent of what Europeans called “taking holiday.”

Summer vacations (and I’m on mine as I write this) are immensely popular in the United States, and the most popular destinations have three things in common: sand, surf and sun.

In fact, on’s top 10 list of summer vacation spots (based on online rental inquiries), four actually featured the word “beach” in their name, and nine of the 10 were beach towns. Every single one of’s 10 best summer destinations featured a beach, and in most other lists (there are many) coastal locales figure prominently and overwhelmingly so.

People looking to vacation love the beach, and with good reason.

There’s hardly a better place to contemplate the magnitude of Mother Nature. Any human who gets too haughty about understanding the universe can benefit from staring out over the vast expanse of the sea and consider that the moon moves that body of water.

We lowly humans have to split the atom to create a pittance of the energy generated in a hurricane; the earth is an awesome wonder and walking along a shoreline with its incessant surging, lapping waves indelibly confirms as much.

But beach trips also tend to bring out better attributes. There are more outdoor activities and a reduced reliance on TV, imbuing lungs with fresh sea air and detoxing brains from boob-tube gluttony.

Indeed, if an alien from outer space visited a beach in vacation season, he would think us a nation of readers. Walk around any crowded beach and you’ll see lots of noses buried in printed pages, with all kinds of titles facing seaward.

The variety of covers punctuates one of the singular beauties of books—they’ve been written about everything. No matter what your walk of life, or your interest or hobby, a book in your hand and a beach in your view is a prime combination for personal growth.

One of the most valuable things a vacation gives you is time to contemplate. That can be a rarity in what pop singer Taylor Swift lyricized as “hundred-mile-an-hour lives.” Rather than sift through sound bites that repeat tired talking points, get an in-depth look at U.S. history, or presidential biographies, or the founding era by grabbing one of countless books on the subject.

Wonder how Alexander Hamilton made Broadway? Read the Ron Chernow book that inspired it.

Want a real look into the manipulative politics of Reconstruction and how, even then, the race card was exploited in ways counterproductive to racial harmony? Read a biography of Andrew Johnson (and prepare to be impressed if you have low expectations of the man).

For a truly insightful peek into the summer of 1787 that spawned our Constitution, pack a copy of Miracle at Philadelphia in your beach bag. Published 50 years ago, it’s still a mainstay standard for a vivid, comprehensive look at the convention, the delegates, their views of “rights,” and their arguments—and compromises.

A self-help classic and personal favorite of mine that never goes out of style is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. If you try to tackle it in normal working conditions you may never find time, but it’s a quick beach read full of inspirational information to take home.

Some people want a true “release” during vacation, and of course the world of great literature (classic and contemporary) not only readily awaits but heartily beckons. There’s always a John Grisham novel you haven’t read yet. Rogue Lawyer was released last fall and is sure to be available at any beach-town bookstore.

Since his first short story collection 35 years ago, Stephen King has been a master in the genre. His latest volume, Bazaar of Bad Dreams, offers 20 stories mostly pulled from his contributions to magazines such as Esquire and The New Yorker, but also includes three unpublished works.

When vacationing, I sometimes let fate play a role in my reading selections by seeing what’s lying around the beach house I’m visiting.

Imagine my delight a few days ago when, while picking through some books stacked in a windowsill, I saw the name F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the title Tender is the Night.

His final completed novel, it’s a story with close ties to his personal life, manifested through many characters based on real life and full of quotable quotes in that only-Fitzgerald way-with-words.

It’s also set on a beach, and his descriptive passages—he characterized the sea “as mysteriously colored as the agates and cornelians of childhood, green as green milk, blue as laundry water, wine dark”—bring to mind how universal beaches and beach life really are, across time and place.

Vacare well: with your toes in sand and your nose in a book.


One thought on “Vacuous vacation thoughts

  1. Dear Mr. Kelley,

    I enjoyed part of your column on May 20th. I’m glad to know that you enjoy Tender Is the Night as much as I do. It’s a great book. But I have to say that the short paragraph about Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton left me baffled, not only because I did’t know that the book had as you said inspired a musical, but because of the pronoun it, which has no clear antecedent. Maybe the sentence would’ve read more clearly had you inserted the phrase “the play Hamilton,” and referred to the Chernow book by title.

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