I write this post in the middle of a four-hour Amtrak ride–tedious, but at least when you’re on a train you can zone out for dozens of minutes as you watch the scenery whiz by. When you’re on an airplane, you don’t even have that option. In my opinion, the discomfort of air travel can only be overcome by a book of especially addictive quality. This isn’t the time to read Heart of Darkness. Good luck trying to focus on dense prose and existential dread when your feet are swelling up and you’re breathing in your neighbor’s sweat.
Obviously this is a good time to read page-turner stuff, your Harry Potters and your Hunger Games, the latest Dan Brown or Harlan Coben thriller. You are not too good for any of this stuff, not when you’re trapped on an airplane (and maybe not ever–even the most formulaic page-turner couldn’t have been easy to write, and to craft a really good one takes a special kind of genius). But there are some books that have been deemed perfect airplane reads that I’ve never quite been able to see the appeal of. For a while I was constantly seeing people toting around the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books, which I personally found pretty tedious.
Here are five books that have saved my life on airplanes–ones that you might not immediately come to mind as airplane novels:
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Everyone already knows about this one, what with the critically acclaimed David Fincher film adaptation and the ongoing debate about whether or not it’s a misogynistic work. But put all of that aside–the important thing is that it’s gripping and twisty. (Need more of a summary than that? A man’s wife mysteriously goes missing. Naturally he’s the very first suspect). I read it without any idea how it was going to end and didn’t look up from its pages once in five hours. If you want a similar experience but want to read something with less hype surrounding it, try Flynn’s Dark Places. The protagonist is a spiteful, maladjusted young lady whose family was murdered by her older brother when she was just five years old. (Bonus: the Kindle edition is only $2.99!).
The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler
No one dies in this one. I read this book on an extremely depressing and horribly delayed fourteen-hour flight. I couldn’t stop smiling. The plot revolves around a curmudgeonly, obsessive compulsive, recently-divorced writer of travel guides for people who hate to travel. A perfect read, featuring some of the most loveably unloveable characters I’ve ever come across.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
For those who want to read something heartwarming that also involves terrorism, this is (maybe the only) book for you. The plot involves a group of terrorists bursting into a fancy dinner party to hold a group of politicians and executives hostage. More lighthearted and life-affirming than it has any right to be.
Trading Up by Candace Bushnell
Way back in the 1990s, Candace Bushnell published a book of essays about sex and New York City. She called it Sex in the City, and it of course became the inspiration for the TV show of the same name. As a result, people who have never read a Candace Bushnell book are pretty sure they know what her writing’s all about. I don’t think they do. While her novels are about wealthy women living in Manhattan, there’s a streak of cynicism running through most of them that you never see in the television series, or really in any other popcorn/chick lit. Bushnell knows how ludicrous these lives are. Bushnell judges. Trading Up follows the exploits of social climbing model Janie Wilcox, who manages to be both repugnant and weirdly sympathetic. You get the rare experience of reading something that feels like an episode of Gossip Girl (polo matches, luxury brand name dropping) but with a whole lot more bite.
When the Sacred Ginmill Closes (Matthew Scudder Mysteries) by Lawrence Block
This is pretty short, so what I’d actually recommend is downloading two or three Matthew Scudder mysteries for your flight (although make sure When the Sacred Ginmill Closes is among them). You don’t have to read them in any particular order. It’s not that kind of series. These are old school detective novels, and they’re light on action and plot twists–Matthew Scudder’s just an alcoholic ex-cop-turned-private detective putting in the leg work for his investigations, poking around, asking questions, and wandering in and out a million different bars and churches along the way. Why do I like these so much? There’s something soothing about their familiar rhythms, they provide a glimpse into a version of New York City that went away a long time ago, and Matthew Scudder is one of the few detectives I can think of with a real and appealing personality. He’s neither a hero nor an anti-hero, he’s troubled without being tortured, he’s good at his job but not a Sherlockian super-genius. He’s perceptive and thoughtful, and you could do worse for company on a long flight.