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Books by Design: Good Reads for the Road
"Once at the boarding gate, Abbey falls into her customary travel coma, a torpor that infuses her brain like pickling fluid during long trips. In this state, she nibbles any snack in reach, grows mesmerized by strangers' footwear, turns philosophical, ends up weepy. She gazes at the banks of seats around the departure lounge: young couples nestling, old husbands reading books about old wars, lovers sharing headphones, whispered words about duty-free and delays."
-The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman
A Solution to the Carry-On Dilemma
And it is quite a dilemma. I spent 2 years traveling between the US and Turkey before I finally gave up on trying to do anything especially productive in transit. One year I had brought my Ancient Greek homework and struggled to concentrate (not to mention write legibly) on a cramped tray occasionally disturbed by turbulence. Needless to say, I didn't get far.
I tried to do some in-flight editing, but had trouble with both digital and hard-copy: the computer was awkward and the papers were difficult to keep in order.
I brought backlogged articles and other academic writing, which, when I was able to concentrate long enough to make it through a sentence or two, would inevitably put me to sleep. Naps are good and all, but reading the same sentence over and over is hardly the way to survive a 10 hour flight and land feeling like a reasonably sane version of yourself.
No, the answer was simple: some music or podcasts to fall asleep to, and one or two well-written, gripping, breezy novels. Below I've supplied an annotated reading list of a few that have gotten me where I needed to go in one piece and in a good spirits. If you have any to add, I would love suggestions for future travels, so do please leave a note.
(Incidentally, aside from this basic entertainment, I highly recommend that your carry-on also hold a spare change of clothing, a large scarf, comfy warm socks, and a comb and a toothbrush.)
One of Many Tasty Delights
Neil Gaiman: fun for the whole bloomin' family
Oh MAN, this guy is good. Of all the authors featured here, Neil Gaimon is the most likely to appeal to a whole family: his writing is clear and clever (not to mention full of jokes and asides for parentals) and his plots would drive the car for you, if opposable thumbs weren't an issue.
Most of his books are available on tape (fine, cd - whatever), often read by the man himself, making them extra excellent for road-trips. The book I'm especially recommending, American Gods, even has a giant cross-country road-trip built right into it. It's occasionally a little graphic, so parents should use their discretion when the under-ten set is involved, but mostly it's just a great story filled with fantastic characters (most of which might be recognized by mythology buffs in your travel gang - Gaiman disguises them, or rather allows that they've adapted to life in America, but there is always a clue for the discerning reader: makes for a great car game).
Other Recommended Gaiman titles:
- Neverwhere (2003)
- The Graveyard Book (2010)
- Coraline (2004)
- Anansi Boys (2006)
I am Woman, Hear Me Roar!
Other Favorite Series by Tamora Pierce
Tamora Pierce: feminist fantasy
Simply and clearly written, the prose is unselfconscious and blessedly doesn't get in the way of one of the best epic fantasies I've had the pleasure of reading. That said, it's perhaps not the best thing to come to as an adult if you've lost the knack of fantasy submersion, but would be ideal if you wanted to keep a fidgety child or young teen from even noticing the hours of transit pile up. There are four books to the series, so it's suitable for trips of any length - and if your family is seriously nomadic, there are later series which overlap with the characters and the now-familiar kingdoms which could presumably preoccupy a traveler for months of flights, long car rides, or, I suppose, dusty caravan travel.
The protagonist is a young girl who wishes to become a knight in a predictably gender-segregated (but magic-infused) kingdom. Along the believably arduous way, and both despite and thanks to the magical aspect, she and her readers develop a subtle understanding of the human (and especially female) condition, honor, and justice that might lead any parent to think that their job here was done.
And so it might very well be. The books, and most importantly the characters housed within, have proven to be life-long friends and role-models for countless readers.
Similar reading suggestions include:
- Juniper and Wise Child by Monica Furlong
- The Dark is Rising (and series) by Susan Cooper
- The Castle in the Attic and The Battle for the Castle by Elizabeth Winthrop
- Weetzie Bat (and series) by Francesca Lia Block
David Foster Wallace: not for the faint of heart
Personal anecdote: I am in Milan, quite broke, accidentally in the middle of fashion week - which naturally means that only the cheapest and skeeziest of the cheap, skeezy places have room for me. And rather than spend my last night being yelled at by an incomprehensible Catholic lady in a bathrobe, I camp out at the airport. With 'Brief Interviews with Hideous Men'. And I didn't mind a bit. What would have otherwise been a very uncomfortable (not to mention painfully boring) eight or nine hours is now remembered as one of the most feverish periods of reading I've had the pleasure to indulge in. You know - when you find yourself thinking that you could read faster if only your eyes could open a little wider.
So anyway, I like to say that Mr. Foster Wallace saved my sanity back there under all that florescent lighting. Which is a touch ironic, because he killed himself a few years later...
The man knew his way around the English language, and he could mess with it better than anyone else I've read. Possibly barring Joyce, but that's just a mean comparison. In any case, his fiction will blow your mind.
I've been slowly working through a book of his non-fiction essays which, while quite readable, aren't nearly as gripping. And if your aim is to completely forget that you're you and that you is broke in an airport, or stuck for hours in a tin can hurtling through Earth's atmosphere, I would definitely go for his fiction.
Dorothy Dunnett: historical fiction, written in dialect. Great if you have a budding voice-actor in the back seat
I've also recommended this series for anyone in need of some late-night insomniac reading, and have it on this list as well for the same reasons: it's engrossing and beautifully written. It makes great travel reading for a few additional reasons: it's not a bad compromise for that unfathomable population of adults who "don't read fiction", and (and!) it's written in dialect, making it fantastic read-aloud fun if you've got plenty of water handy. My throat got sore after only a couple chapters, but when I stopped it became clear that Husbee wasn't the only one I was entertaining - the rows directly in front of and behind us suddenly got very busy trying to find something else to do. So apparently yes, it's just that appealing.
G. K. Chesterton: a witty British gentleman who makes religion sound sane
For the traveler who really can't stand fiction, I recommend Heretics and Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton. They're well written, funny, and too clever by half. Even if religion is not generally your thing, you'll find that what have been called 'Christian Apologies' are more aptly considered discourses and essays on morality and Western Civilization. My touchy feelers were never once distressed by excessive religiosity.
Again, these are available as audio files through itunes, and the texts are available online for free through the Gutenberg Project - and probably also at your local library.
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On your way with you, then
I hope these recommendations will get you where you need to go, and I would be very much obliged if anyone cared to share their own favorite travel companions - I've got a few long flights coming up and would hate to be caught empty-handed.