Airport Books

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.


Reading Behind the Counter

Because I was surprised that our October warmth was finally frosted out – because I only found one glove this morning and biked to the bookshop with my bare left hand balled inside my coat pocket – because my lips are chapped and I’m wearing two sweaters as I sit stationary behind the counter, I’m reading Ted Hughes’ Season Songs (1976). These poems distil transition. They’re half-heartedly kids’ poems about the seasons changing, but Hughes said that the poems ‘grew up’ as he wrote them. And that’s true in both form and content: the sex-imbued spring, the autumn that is all death, the line breaks that piece fragments into mosaic – “On the hive-lip. Snowdrops. Two buzzards, / Still-wings, each / Magnetized to the other, / Float orbits.” Many poems retain repetition and refrains fit for children’s poetry, but they now really read as songs.

Sitting behind the book counter, trying to accept/love the cold and darkness, these are the stanzas I’m loving from an autumn poem, “There Came a Day”:

There came a day that caught the summer
Wrung its neck
Plucked it
And ate it.

Now what shall I do with the trees?
The day said, the day said.
Strip them bare, strip them bare.
Let’s see what is really there.

And what shall I do with the sun?
The day said, the day said.
Roll him away till he’s cold and small.
He’ll come back rested if he comes back at all.

What shall I do with the people?
The day said, the day said.
Stuff them with apple and blackberry pie –
They’ll love me then till the day they die.

Season Songs is a short collection, and I found it in Ted Hughes’ massive Collected Poems (2005, Faber and Faber), which we have on the shelf. Flipping through, I also find my Ted Hughes favorites: “The Thought-Fox”, “Earth-numb”, “That girl”. And all of them are about transition, about nature and decomposition – they animalize humans and anthropomorphize the rest of nature.

At home, I’ve been reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and she does the same: squirrels are “neighborhood children”; wind “crumples the water’s skin.” As winter tip-toes into Berlin, and all our green in-between spaces fall asleep until spring, I’m wondering about our anthropomorphizing impulses, about how we understand our ecosystems’ actions by comparing them to our human reactions. I’m wondering about reading ‘nature writing’ in the city and how we observe seasonal change with a view framed by tall buildings. It feels smaller: the trees lining the streets lose leaves, the grass between the rails browns and turns whispery – we see the individual tree, not the forest; the patch of grass, not the field. And the city slows but doesn’t sleep.

– Emma Wippermann


Bookstore Kitchen Quips

What’s the difference between a bagel and a Robbe-Grillet novel?
Once you’ve finished a bagel, the hole in the middle’s gone!

What’s the difference between a hot dog and a Burroughs novel?
If you cut up a hot dog, it doesn’t really work any more.

What’s the difference between a blueberry muffin and 50 Shades of Grey?
You can’t leave a blueberry muffin in the bathroom.

for the Shakespeare & Sons book-n-bagel store, Berlin

Adrian Hornsby



Reading: Berlin Under 30

Virginia Woolf said publish nothing before age 30. John Keats was dead at 25. Sienna Miller, often among the sagest of voices ringing out from the cacophony of contemporary literature, perhaps said it best: “If anyone’s twenties are documented, it’s not always going to be pretty.”

On Thursday, November 21st at 8pm, join us for Berlin Under 30, a reading of writers who may or may not know what the hell they’re talking about. Bring your friends, bring your rapidly fluctuating feelings of absolute certainty and debilitating self-doubt, bring your beer money—it’s going to be fun.