[It is critical to the success of this post’s title that you read it in the voice of Big Brother. Just saying.]

When it comes to packing for a holiday, I’m very much a last-minute kind of girl. Yes, one of those annoying people who’s still washing and drying clothes the night before and ironing and packing them on departure day itself.

I blame this on books. Or, rather, the fact that it takes me so long to decide which ones to take on holiday, I have very little time left in which to pack everything else.

You see, if I forget a toothbrush, I can always buy that on the way or at my destination. This doesn’t always follow for books and I have a deep-rooted fear that I might not find anything I want to read en route. I can trace this back to the year I spent in Greece, when I had limited access to English books (despite being there to teach the language), and my honeymoon, when I wasn’t allowed to take any with me. Three days in and my husband escorted me to the hotel gift shop, where I spent an inordinate amount of time choosing a glittery and embossed doorstop I’d never normally read at home, in order to keep me – and, more importantly, him – sane for the duration.

Ever since that traumatic experience, I’m allowed to take whatever books I can carry.

The problem, for me, is deciding which ones those are. I don’t need to buy new books to take with me. I have more than enough To-Be-Read’s (TBR). Maybe that’s the problem? If I were more disciplined and didn’t buy so many books, I wouldn’t have such a backlog. Instead, I’d have a manageable number of unread books – 2 or 3 at most – and I could pack them all. (No, it’s okay. Go ahead and laugh. I didn’t even type that with a straight face. It’s never going to happen!)

As it is, my selection process is akin to X-Factor elimination rounds. I pull books off shelves from around the house and put them out in line of sight, making them all Possibles. But there’s a hierarchy, with the ones downstairs having least chance of making it through the qualifying heats. Those which make it upstairs to my office have the best chance, especially the ones closest to my desk, the Probables, and those actually on my desk, the Definites. (Despite the name, that’s still no guarantee of success.) Of course, I spend time moving these books around, discarding some and adding others right up until the day before we leave.

How do I choose what makes the book bag? All kinds of factors come into play. How long am I going for? Do I have to be sociable while I’m there? Am I camping? (Very important to take books I don’t mind being spoiled in this case.) Or am I staying with friends or in a hotel? (If it’s the former, I’ll have less time for reading and should take more short stories and poetry.) How am I getting there? (If it’s by public transport, I’ll have to carry whatever I take, maybe over distance and running to catch a connection, making book weight a factor.) Have I been saving a book that requires the kind of attention I can only give it on holiday? (Step forward a 900+pager like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.) Am I going for a particular theme, subject, author or setting, like where I’ll be staying? (Under a Tuscan Sun in A Room with a View.) Do I want a Classic or Modern? Poetry or Prose? Fiction or Non-Fiction? Fun or Serious? A new author or someone I know and love? (I’ll have one of each, please.)

Then, on the day of departure, I’ll rush back into the house and make a long-neglected novel’s day by snatching it off a shelf and thrusting it too into the book bag. Pure impulse tells me that I have to fetch it because I’d regret leaving it behind. So, this provides a last-minute frisson of excitement, together with the notion that I might have packed a rogue one.

I’m currently filling my Holiday Book Bag (pictured above and snagged from the Guardian’s kiosk at the Hay Festival 2010). I’ll let you know which ones make the cut, and how many of them I actually read, in a future post.

(Note: Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor and The Magnetic North by Sara Wheeler aren’t going on holiday this time and have been used for illustration purposes only. You can no doubt hear them tearing their pages out at this injustice.)

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