The last airport book I bought was Patti Smith’s Just Kids. It was the perfect length and depth for a loud transatlantic flight. Stationary, I don’t know if I would have liked it as much. But travelling books have different requirements than our at-home-in-bed books — plot takes primacy, and though we don’t want to be embarrassed by the cover, we want an easy submersion into an alternate world until we are wherever we want to be. Maybe travel books are an ‘art vs. entertainment’ discussion, but when ‘art’ can’t drown out the airplane’s roar (attempting to read Ulysses on a plane definitely increased the discomfort of travel), I err toward entertainment. No more great books on buses, trains, or flights. I settle for good books. I might not remember the story in five years but on that five-hour journey, I will be thoroughly lost in it.
Once, a friend revoked his gift of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping when he learned I planned to read it while travelling. When I read it later, inert at home and reading a few beautiful pages at a time, I was thankful.
So: we are compiling a list of travelling books — books that will take you hostage for the duration of your flight. Here a couple staff recommendations, and please comment with your own!
Just Kids, Patti Smith
I actually read this straight-through. She submerges you in the New York of the late 60s and 70s, and you meet everyone you wanted to know from that time.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
It really feels like a guilty-read: it opens with an admission to murder and works its way toward explanation. But the unreliable first-person narrator brings depth and added mystery, and the cold look at the American East Coast upper-class finds truth in its hyperbole. I’ve heard that her dark romanticism is matured in her new novel, The Goldfinch, which moves through the underside of a wealthy New York art world.
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Structurally impressive, Americanah moves from Nigera to the U.S., England, and back again. The protagonist is an inflammatory blogger about race in the States, and while the novel is openly political, it’s also a simple love story. Adichie teaches us more about life in all three countries, but the novel never veers from entertainment.
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
A brutal, gripping account of Tudor England, Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize in 2009. And because it’s long, it’ll last your entire trip even though you won’t put it down.
The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen
Disclosure: I love to hate on both Eugenides and Franzen. I find their writing forgettable and think they are too hyped up for what they deliver. That said, both The Marriage Plot and Freedom know how to do plot. I was sucked in against my will. Perfect airplane books.
Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?, Leszek Kolakowski
If you prefer something more sectional and informational: Kolakowski’s book is an engaging look at the major questions of the major philosophers. Kolakowski is Alain de Botton’s peer in accessible philosophy, but surpasses him in depth.
Happy holiday travels, everyone. Tell us what you’re reading and what you recommend.