Leaving on a Jet Plane (and What to Bring Along to Read)

13 Sep

20080727SeaTacPlane

Today, I’m jumping on a plane again, heading to Boston to celebrate the marriage of some dear friends. (Congratulations, Lindsey and Kell!) But I relish any excuse to find myself in the airport. (After all, I spent a lot of my childhood in airports, because this is what happens when your grandparents live in another state.) Airports are bizarre places. If I believed in magic, I would say airports are one of the most magical places in the human world right now. They are portals to other places, but they’re also strangely permanent and homey–with their restaurants and shops, the way people settle in with blankets and pillows while wearing their sweatpants or pajamas. I mean, you don’t see me snuggling with my favorite stuffed dog Spot down at the pub (but if you ever do, please cut me off). Airports are at once all displacing–filled with strangers and strange air–and all the same. It’s in these weird flux environments that I most love to read and write. I made a list of my favorite books to read while traveling. Let me know what your favorite travel books are!

10. Bleak House by Charles Dickens

I have a soft spot for Dickens–for all Victorian literature, really–and Bleak House is my favorite of them all. I won’t go gushing about this fantastically sinister, dirty, creepy book (I mean, human combustion! Come on!), but Dickens is a great read at the airport for one obvious reason: he writes super, big honking novels. You could start reading Bleak House right out of the security gate, straight through all your delays, slogging through the six-hour flight and you’ll barely be halfway through that sucker. (Just wait until you get to the 8.5-hour Masterpiece Theatre TV adaptation!)

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9. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

Watch out! This bad boy won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, so you’re not allowed to dislike it or say anything detrimental. But really, The Shipping News is the perfect book for a plane ride: it balances the loftiness and changeability of air travel with its stark setting of Newfoundland; and it also exemplifies the feeling of alienation as its main character Quoyle adjusts to a foreign, tight-knit community. Quoyle and his non-traditional family unit strive to make a safe space for themselves and discover Newfoundland, even at its most tempestuous, isn’t frightening at all, but a beautiful land of beautiful characters.

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8. Mao II by Don DeLillo

This isn’t my favorite of DeLillo’s, but the champion of postmodern pop-culture takes it to town in Mao II, which makes it a chilling read in a place that’s plastered with logos, newspapers, and duty-free commercial everything. The novel follows a reclusive writer as he navigates a conflict of motivations: does he publish his newest book and dilute himself with the masses, or does he refrain to protect himself in and his ideas and ultimately recede entirely from the public’s eye? DeLillo’s protagonist faces what most of DeLillo’s protagonist faces, but Mao II takes him across the globe in a series of painful and sometimes horrifying enlightenment.

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7. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Sometimes I feel like I just need a good laugh. Sometimes I feel like I need a Babel fish to decipher the Bostonian accent. All the times I should have a towel handy, and maybe especially on a cross-country flight. Douglas Adams’s classic sci-fi novel rejuvenated a genre that was traditionally cradled in pulp or overly serious political metaphors. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is irreverent, subversive, and above all wildly entertaining. Join Arthur Dent–the last living human after Earth is destroyed to make way for a hyperspatial express route–and his unlikely companions in a journey to just stay alive in a violent galaxy, and maybe find the answer to everything along the way.

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6. Away by Amy Bloom

Away is a novel about traveling across America in pursuit of family. Enough said. ( But no, really, this beautiful, heart-wrenching novel will fulfill any reader’s need for the epic. Lillian Leyb, a refugee in 1920s America, has survived the Russian pogrom, but she’s separated from her daughter Sophie. Now, having heard word that Sophie still lives and is being cared for by a family in Siberia, Lillian must traverse all of America, including the barely civilized hinterlands of Seattle and Alaska, to try and reach her only child. Bloom doesn’t write a long novel, and it isn’t saturated with swords and dragons and damsels, but Away is a gigantic story. It fills your imagination and heart as your read it. And you might cry. Just saying.)

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5. The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Millay’s poetry is imbued with her sense of constant transition. She was fluid in her art and life and love. Poems like “Assault,” “Travel,” and “Spring” speak to her obsession with the goings and returnings in this life. I can think of no better poet to carry with me while on my way “from one house to another!”

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4. Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski

I read this while traveling through England, as a bright-eyed college student finally stretching her wings (meaning drinking while under the age of 21). But Kapuscinski’s own discoveries and introspection of reading Herodotus’s Histories while journeying through the Mediterranean captivated me. His journalistic training combined with his sense for the magical made me fall even more in love with travel.

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3. Brave New World by Alduous Huxley

The first time I read this book, I was stranded for five hours in the Sea-Tac airport. Mind you, it’s a beautiful airport. I was by myself and this was before smartphones were thing. I had the most glorious time binge-reading Huxley’s classic, and I can’t step foot in an airport without being haunted by that final image of the novel.

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2. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

Would you like to talk travel? Nothing quite says it like fatal expeditions through the wildest jungle on a our planet–a jungle filled to the brim with animals and native tribes willing to protect their own with tooth and claw (and poisoned arrows), and enchanted with the hopes of a lost city of gold. David Grann’s entertaining, journalistic writing will carry you through the true story of aging Colonel Percy Fawcett, the last of his kind of gentlemen explorers, and his quest to make his name legendary by finding said lost city. The book is filled with mystery, danger, and death. What better book to take with you on your perfectly safe, adventureless plane ride?

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1. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

No, I didn’t pick this one just because it has the world “traveler” in the title. Honestly, this is my favorite book right now. MY FAVORITE BOOK. Calvino doesn’t explore travel in the literal way Kapuscinski does, or the fantastical way Adams does, or the epic way Bloom does. Calvino’s is an exploration of the journey of reading. His experimental work of fiction imitates and examines the process of the reader as we travel with the protagonist on his quest to find the book he’s looking for. A mosaic of story lines and settings begins to form the larger work of art that is the experience of reading, and Calvino’s exceptional writing (yep, I cried in this book, too) makes it possible.

What books do you bring with you on plane trips? Or train trips? Or long, epic car rides? Which are the best companions to your travels?

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8 Responses to “Leaving on a Jet Plane (and What to Bring Along to Read)”

  1. FictionFan September 13, 2013 at 10:18 am #

    Ah, you can obviously concentrate better than me while travelling. I need something light and cheerful – a serial killer or psycopath does the trick! Delighted though to see Bleak House – my favourite Dickens…in fact, my favourite book of all time, I think. Couldn’t possibly read poetry in public, since poetry requires me to read aloud…

    • litbeetle September 13, 2013 at 10:26 am #

      Airports and airplanes are something special for me. Don’t know why, but I’ve be always been a very productive reader in those spaces! Haha! And I do love my psychopaths and serial killers…

      (“Bleak House” is my favorite Dickens, too!)

  2. rtcvers September 14, 2013 at 9:08 am #

    For traveling, I always indulge in a little Young Adult lit…! (He said with a little grin) It’s easy to get into, easy to keep going, and keeps your mind off the duldrums of sitting still for hours on end. Give me something with heroic teenagers, special powers, and first loves and we’re good to travel!

    • endofthegame September 15, 2013 at 4:52 am #

      I don’t have a favourite ‘travel book’ as every time I get on a plane I make sure to read something I haven’t read before. Gives me something to look forward to – the exploration of a new undiscovered world. However, I do have a favourite book that I read (red not reed) while travelling because it reminds me so much of the time and place I read it and that is The Beach by Alex Garland, which I picked up at a small bookstore in Bangkok’s train station. One of my all time favourite books actually.

      I’ve heard about ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler’, I might just put that on the ‘to read on a plane trip’ list!

      • litbeetle September 18, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

        “The Beach” sounds interesting! Added to my Goodreads TBR shelf 🙂

    • litbeetle September 18, 2013 at 2:44 pm #

      I love YA! I should review more here on this blog. Do you have any suggestions? I really like Libba Bray, Malinda Lo, and Sherman Alexie, but I need to expand.

  3. kyle September 16, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    You know me…I have lived and loved airports right alongside you! My reading preferences are a little obvious and…well…literal. I love to read travel books (like the one you got for me!) and magazines when I travel. You’d think that actually going someplace would mean that I shouldn’t have to read about going some other place…but that’s pretty much what I always do. My current tradition right now is to buy a new travel magazine (especially for the photography) every time I fly.

    • litbeetle September 18, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

      Good idea. Magazines are great for browsing and easy on the eyes. They’re always a treat for me, and flying across the country is the perfect time for treats!

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