What to Read on an Airplane

A column about life, culture, and politics.
June 13 2013 8:37 AM

Great Airplane Reads

Not too scary. Not too slow. Totally absorbing. The criteria for a perfect airplane book.

A passenger reads a book at the San Pablo Airport in Seville May 11, 2010.
What to read when you're en route?

Photo by Marcelo Del Pozo/Reuters

What follows is a list of the all time greatest books to read on a plane; it is specifically for those who hate flying, or are anxious, or simply bored, or can’t sleep with their head balanced on a pillow and their knees propped up against the seat in front of them, or those who suffer existential dread on planes.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

My criteria are books that are truly, effectively transporting, i.e. books that create a rival world so vivid, so consuming, so enthralling that it effaces the hideous lingering smell of airplane food, the hours of dead time. Conventionally people think trashy novels are good for planes, but I disagree with this theory because trashy books are too thin, too predictable to absorb and fascinate and mesmerize on quite the right level.

For these purposes I like a long or at least longish book, so that it lasts for much if not all of the ride; but it can’t be slow or meandering. If you are reading Proust, wonderful and lingering as the sentences are, your attention will wander and you will have time to glance out the window and wonder about the smoke coming out the wing.

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Lastly, you don’t want a book that is too exciting or terrifying—I made the mistake on my last airplane ride of reading an English thriller about a woman who loses her memory every day with a violent and disturbing denouement—because fear of any kind is to be avoided, and a fast pace not quite right for the kind of luxurious lostness in another world that works best on a plane. The trick is to find a book that is for one reason or another vacation-esque, a book that occupies—that is, takes over—your thoughts.

1. The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer.

I can see that it might seem perverse to weigh down your carry on with a 1,000-page book, but this stunning account of the murderer Gary Gilmore’s inner landscape will never, as you are reading, feel long. In flat, unvarnished prose, Mailer reproduces Gilmore’s maddening, charming, desperate voice. I think it’s fair to say that his rocky love affair with the young, complicated single mother Nicole Barrett is one of the single greatest love stories in American literature. One becomes so wrapped up in the book, so seduced by its disturbing verisimilitude, its reproduction of its particular milieu and of each character’s inner thoughts, its bleak, violent, passionate vista, that you don’t even stop to wonder why Nicole loves a murderer, or why you do. The novel follows Gilmore into prison, his letters, his fantasies, and finally his execution, and the portrait it creates is so fascinating, so flawless, so gorgeously, frighteningly evoked, that it will entirely obliterate your unpromising surroundings. It is useful for a plane book to give you some profound or bigger things to mull over, for a more exquisite or satisfying escape, and this one does. Dave Eggers writes in his quite beautiful introduction, I think without exaggeration, that the book “comes as close to solving the enigma of America as any other work of art we have.”

2. Can You Forgive Her?  by Anthony Trollope.

This particular Trollope novel is perfectly transporting because it is both intensely modern and comfortingly 19th-century-ish. In 1865 Trollope takes up the very current subject of ambivalence. He devotes an entire novel to the perversity of resisting a happy ending, to rogue fruitless flirtations, to the deeper, irrational conflicts that plague our most intimate decisions. Alice Vavasor asks herself, “What should a woman do with her life?” Trollope’s storytelling is so thorough, so leisurely, so immersive in gossipy detail on the highest level, that one escapes entirely into the universe of this decision. The reader is drawn into Alice’s confusion, to the various characters populating it, with an urgency that very few novels achieve. Trollope tells us that Alice “had by degrees filled herself with the vague idea that there was a something to be done; a something over and beyond, or perhaps altogether beside that marrying and having two children;—if only she knew what it was. She had filled herself … with an undefined ambition that made her restless without giving her any real food for her mind.” What is most brilliant and absorbing about the book is that the man Alice is resisting marrying for hundreds of pages is the man she should marry, that her resistance, her conflict is substanceless, existential, the self-sabotage involved in finding herself.

3. A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth.

From the very first line—“ ‘You too will marry a boy I choose,’ said Mrs Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter”—one is drawn into the warm, funny, charismatic Indian Jane Austen–like quest. The book is ostensibly the story of who Lata finally chooses to marry—the brilliant poet, the forbidden Muslim boy, or the business man her mother attempts to match her with—but it brings in the whole world: politics, religion, class, sex, rhyming couplets, astrologists, family dynamics. Of the man she finally chooses, Lata thinks at one point: “It’s not that she didn’t like [him]. But the thought of their getting married was ridiculous.”

4. The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki.

One might imagine that the intricate world of aristocratic Japanese sisters in the 1930s would be insufficiently compelling for an airplane read, but it is. One gets lost in the cherry blossoms, the sharp sisterly squabbles, the matchmakers’ scheming, the baroque family politics, scandalous affairs, an unwanted pregnancy, and the family’s efforts to maintain rapidly fading traditions. One of the sisters, to explain how glum she was on her wedding day, says in verse: “On clothes I’ve wasted/ Another good day./ Weddings, I find/ Are not always gay.”

5. Independence Day by Richard Ford.

It’s easy to get lost in the sublimely articulate crises and superb bumbling of Frank Bascombe, and in fact any book in the Bascombe trilogy is excellent for airplanes. Bascombe is, in this one, a Realtor in Haddam, after his marriage and career have broken down. He is irresistible in his bleak philosophizing, his ruminations on real estate, and his attempts at comfort or love. He thinks about his ex-wife, “And where had passion gone? I wondered it all the time. And why when we needed it so? ... Desire, turned to habit, allowed to go astray by fools (We could do better now, or so I decided last night, since we understand each other better, having nothing to offer or take away and therefore nothing worth holding back or protecting. It’s a kind of progress.)”

As a caveat, I should mention that these books are also excellent for times that you are restlessly stuck in the tropical-seeming city and need to dream up an escape, or times where you are waiting for something important, or when you are pregnant, or sitting in a doctor’s office. That is, all slow transitions, uncomfortable pockets of anticipation, the loaded minutes before a date arrives. These books are what Andrew Marvell meant when he wrote that the mind “creates, transcending these/ Far other worlds, and other seas;/ Annihilating all that’s made/ To a green thought in a green shade.”

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