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What makes for the best travel books? You tell me

March 2, 2010

Lewis & Clark: first-rate travel writers in both senses of the term.

And with apologies to my old pal Thomas Swick, one of the best travel writers alive, by “travel books” I mean books you read while in transit, not books about, you know, travel. Come to think of it, shouldn’t the other kind of travel book actually be called “destination books?’ I mean, otherwise, shouldn’t they be confined to what happens on the boat, plane, car, camel, rickshaw, etc.?

Sorry, sorry, I’m a little delirious today after taking yesterday off to catch up on other work. But thanks to all those loyal readers who continued to post comments to Friday’s blog about the use and misuse and possible banning of the word “retard.” Now on to matters at hand.

I’m put in mind of books to read while traveling by a clever essay at NPR called “The Mile High Book Club: Great Airplane Reads,” in which Sarah Jane Gilman lists a handful of books (with links to excerpts) that she’s found rewarding reading while sailing through the stratosphere in a metal cylinder.

Most people think that books to be read on airplanes (or trains, or cruise ships) should be light and undemanding. In fact, an entire marketing category is built around the notion of the “airport book,” usually something full of propulsive suspense or intrigue, or else pulpy soap (or soapy pulp). Patricia Cornwell, Michael Crichton, Robert Ludlum are masters of the former, while Danielle Steel, Judith Krantz, Nicholas Sparks are exemplars of the latter.

Airport novels, which the French charmingly call romans de gare (railway station novels), are thus similar to beach books. I’ve always thought the idea ridiculous — you should read on the beach or an airplane exactly what you’d read on your couch. Then I lugged The Portrait of a Lady along for an afternoon on the sand and discovered the dense subclauses of Henry James could not compete with bikinis, coconut oil and squeals of Frisbee players.

So what kind of books do you like to read while traveling? I’ve found almost anything non-Jamesian does the trick, although I’m not big on the Russians, either. Books I’ve read with joy (and sometimes revelation) on airplanes or trains range from Congo, by Michael Crichton (a potboiler if ever there was one), to Simon Mawer’s The Gospel of Judas, a very serious novel about faith.

Others: Rum Punch, by Elmore Leonard; the one-volume Journal of Lewis and Clark, edited and with an introduction by Bernard DeVoto; The Night Gardner, by George Pelecanos; The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera; Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke; Freud: A Life for Our Time, by Peter Gay; Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall; and The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman.

No, I don’t see a pattern in there, either. And I bet, like me, you read whatever catches your fancy while you’re traveling. That seems the lesson Gilman imparts: “something delicious and escapist to read that won’t insult my intelligence or embarrass me in airports.” And a couple of books she discusses (The Old Man and Me, by Elaine Dundy; Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, by Daniel L. Everette) go straight on my wish list.

So what do you think makes a book a good travel companion? Do you have a go-to fave (Mickey Spillane? Dick Francis? Carolyn Keene?) And what are some books you’ve enjoyed and would like to share with the class?

30 Comments leave one →
  1. Oline Cogdill permalink
    March 2, 2010 1:40 pm

    I read on a plane what I read anywhere — crime fiction. Good post, Chauncey

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 2, 2010 2:40 pm

      I’m reading some crime fiction myownself at the moment, Matt Beynon Reese’s The Fourth Assassin. So far, so good. And I recently read Dave Seltzerman’s Pariah, one of the best novels of last year, in any category. Always good to hear from you, Oline.

  2. Tommy permalink
    March 2, 2010 1:57 pm

    I have not flown in years. Been a while since I have taken a train. And I never rode a camel, yet. I do use public transportation a lot, a lot a lot. So when packing my bag for the day I always include some recreational material for long, sometimes seemingly endless waits for a bus to arrive. I have missed a couple of buses in my time due to being so engrossed with a tale that I forget to look around. Bringing along a book for the bus ride, along with making the trip seem to pass quicker, has the added benefit of (sometimes) saving me from having to converse with some of the shall I say, more unique of my fellow travelers.

    My first consideration for choosing THE book to bring has to be size. Loaded with textbooks, laptop, notepads, water bottle and all the other paraphernalia of higher learning my bag is quite heavy. A thousand page title like Vollmann’s “Argall” or “The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg” has no chance of traveling with me.

    A like bringing along smaller books that are collections of stories like “Roald Dahl: Collected Stories”, Santos, “Scent of Apples” and so on. Their is a certain satisfaction I feel having consumed a story, start to finish, while getting something else accomplished. You know, two birds one stone, though throwing rocks at birds is rude.

    Science-Fiction. I read sci-fi on a regular basis so why would I choose not to just because I am leaving my favorite escape pod (my couch) and using Terran transportation. George Alec Effinger’s “Live: From Planet Earth!” ( Have you ever read the short story by him “The Aliens who Knew Everything, I mean, Everything” Chauncey?) fits all three of my criteria so does “The Collected Short Stories of Arthur C. Clarke”. Some days while reading books like this I can imagine the bus being some low-rent spacecraft (which explains the uniqueness of some around me) and when I disembark things will have changed, for the weirder.

    I will say the Library of America editions which are sturdy, compact, come complete with built in page marker and usually have notes on the text are great for travel. Maybe even perfect.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 2, 2010 2:45 pm

      Nice suggestions, Tommy. I admit I cheated a tiny bit, but only because I didn’t want to make the post any longer by explaining that some of the books on my list could not be read on a single flight, not even a longish one. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, for example, runs more than 900 pages, so I only read a portion of it inflight. But I think travel books include those read while we are at our destination, as well as those in transit. I can see how you wouldn’t want to lug a book this size on a local trip via public transit. But I do highly recommend it.

      I’m afraid I’ve read nothing by Effinger. Will keep an eye out. Thanks. Love the title, by the way.

      • Tommy permalink
        March 3, 2010 11:49 am

        As soon as I am done with the literary Swedes, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell it is.

        I thought you would appreciate that title. I am surprised his work has never caught your eye before. With this short story Effinger changed my mind about which type of alien is the most frightening. I have to lend you a copy, I’d really enjoy hearing what you think.

  3. Dee Bishoff permalink
    March 2, 2010 1:59 pm

    I read exactly the same as any other time, I just make sure I have plenty to read. And like Oline, my favorite is crime fiction. I use her blog as well as yours, Chauncey, for recommendations as to what to read.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 2, 2010 2:47 pm

      Well, in that case, let me repeat: I’m currently reading Matt Benyon Reese, and like it very well so far. And I cannot recommend anything by Dave Seltzerman highly enough.

  4. Candice permalink
    March 2, 2010 2:06 pm

    Reading novels on a subway ride seemed, shall we say NOVEL, back in the days. Small town to big city transplants like me were bound to feel surreal on the NYC subway, and Henry James and Anais Nin were just perfect.

    So was “The Village Voice.” And even better, if I could find a seat, writing in my journal.

    I used to have a habit of reading in bars too. It would always result in a conversation–always somebody present who would have read the same book. I don’t frequent bars much anymore, but can you do a column on bar-reading, Chauncey Mabe? I guess that could include coffee house reading as well.

    • Tommy permalink
      March 2, 2010 2:13 pm

      Reading?, in a bar? Whaaaaa? Candice, I apologize if I ever spilled beer on your books. It might have been on purpose.

      • Candice permalink
        March 2, 2010 3:05 pm

        I knew that was you.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 2, 2010 2:50 pm

      I do not go to bars unless I’m meeting someone, so I don’t have much to say about bar reading. For coffee shops, I generally favor newspapers or magazines. I also like to read in restaurants, if I’m dining solo, and generally prefer magazines or books. For books, all the above applies, which is to say: Whatever I’m interested in. My favorite magazine for restaurant/coffee shop reading is by far The New York Review of Books, followed by The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Week.

      • Candice permalink
        March 2, 2010 3:05 pm

        What do you read while you are waiting for someone to arrive?

  5. Connie permalink
    March 2, 2010 2:21 pm

    On a plane I want crime fiction. Maybe because I’m not particularly happy on a plane – though I endure it just like everybody else because, what, I’m going to DRIVE everywhere from the furthest tip of the country???? – and so I crave comfort reading.

    I go on hiking/backpacking trips at least twice a year, and when I’m there out in the middle of nowhere, I tend to like to read about the area. When I traveled in Arizona, I read all of Edward Abbey. Moved on to the canyonlands of southern Utah and discovered Ellen Meloy’s nonfiction. I’ve also delved into the nonfiction of Craig Childs (he also writes a lot about Utah) and David Roberts (particularly his books on native Americans, like “Once They Moved Like the Wind”). It’s funny because in real life I read nonfiction rarely.

    Park me on my best friend’s deck out in Seattle, though, and I want literary fiction. I’ve read some of my favorite books there: Andrea Barrett’s Servants of the Map, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. I struggled through Orhan Pamuk’s Snow there last summer.

    So I guess it just depends on where I am…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 2, 2010 2:58 pm

      Fascinating. It’s good to hear the name of Edward Abbey in any context, and I’m a big fan of Andrea Barrett, too. Crime fiction is good for planes, trains, etc., but for me, it has to be good crime fiction, which is why I’m ranting ceaselessly about my latest discovery, Dave Seltzerman. Reading about an area I’m visiting is something I’ve always thought a great idea, but have never had the discipline to actually do. Instead, I just keep reading wherever and whatever my profligate tastes take me. And of course reading to review dictates a lot of what I read.

      My laziness has some advantages. It saved me from reading any Robert Parker when I made my big trip to Boston a few years ago. A more overrated, paint-by-numbers writer I cannot imagine.

      • Tommy permalink
        March 2, 2010 3:47 pm

        Seltzerman aye? I will look it up, because of your recommendations. Just finished a novel by Mieville, another author you both recommended. “Un Lun Dun” which was fun, maybe a bit under my reading level (seemed a bit like a kids book). I still need to read “The City and The City” but have been thwarted by the library’s looooong waiting list for that title. City must be good, everyone in Broward county has reserved it. You and Connie, well mainly Connie have turned me on to Norwegian author’s. More specifically Norweigan crime fiction. Starting The Millenium Trilogy by Larsson today and have “Italian Shoes” by Henning Mankell whispering “read me, read me”. So is Rebecca Skloot ( who’s last name sounds kind of Norweigan-ish) “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”.

        Now if I could just take all these books with me on a slow ship to Norway I would be in Heaven.

        Thank You both for the recommendations.

    • Tommy permalink
      March 2, 2010 3:56 pm

      Errr… Make that slow ship to Sweden. And you know replace Norwegian with Sweden.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        March 3, 2010 10:38 am

        There’s a difference?

      • Tommy permalink
        March 3, 2010 11:26 am

        Yes there is. ABBA came from Sweden. So I like Norway better by default.

        Did you know you can tell a Swede, you just can’t tell them much.

  6. Dee Bishoff permalink
    March 2, 2010 3:07 pm

    Read Dave Zeltzerman’s Pariah at your suggestion and loved it! My next favorite genre is Mystery. I will read almost anything that can keep me interested, (even the much maligned Twilight series). I have even read some Tony Hillerman, really not the best writer, but I just fall in love with the characters. Just finished one of his books, Hunting Badger. I read just for the sheer pleasure of reading!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 2, 2010 3:25 pm

      Seltzerman has a new one out any day, called Killer. I’m much looking forward to it. I liked Hillerman, but found more or less if you’ve read a couple, you’ve read ’em all. As for reading “just for the sheer pleasure of reading,” what other reason is there? That’s the best.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        March 2, 2010 3:26 pm

        While waiting for someone to arrive, I prefer a periodical. I like to be able to immerse myself in a book, but a magazine survives any number of interuptons, including the arrival of a friend.

  7. March 2, 2010 4:12 pm

    Never, ever think you shouldn’t write. You are a very, very good writer and have a lot to tell. Please, please don’t give it up. I will cross all my fingers, toes, eyes etc that you get it all back. But, if you don’t, maybe wait a while and then get back to re-writing the lost part.

  8. Connie permalink
    March 2, 2010 4:15 pm

    A magazine is perfect for the doctor’s office or a plane.

    I’ll definitely check out Seltzerman, possibly on my next trip west (in April). Is there any particular book I should start with? I need something to move on from my mourning over Stieg Larsson’s death.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 3, 2010 10:45 am

      Seltzerman has several books under his belt, but he’s just now hitting his stride. His new book, Killer, is the final in his “out of prison trilogy.” It began with the excellent Small Crimes, continued with the even more excellent Pariah. So I guess you should start with Small Crimes, even though Pariah is a work of near genius. If Albert Camus had a sense of humor, he’d be Dave Seltzerman. If Jim Thompson had not been a hopeless drunk…and highest praise of all, if Charles Willeford had been 40 years younger and lived in Boston, he’d be Dave Seltzerman. Okay, my enthusiasm for this author has officially gotten away from me.

  9. John Karwacki permalink
    March 2, 2010 11:37 pm

    Can’t put down Maryse Conde’s “The Story Of the Cannibal Woman”, I would not could not on a plane I would not could not on a train. How about Mark Twain’s “The Mysterious Stranger Manuscrpts”. I like Assimov’s “Foundation” books when travelling too. I considered travelling to the future yesterday and here I am. Short spiritual books are comfortable travelling companion’s also, like Yogananda’s meditation books or Grapevine magazines – tend to drown out the screaming child three rows back. I love to travel and I love to read, what an awesome combination. Oh yeah, what about short story compilations like those best of whatevers that publishers like to publish.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 3, 2010 10:50 am

      Good suggestions all, John. A few years ago, I took the Library of America collection of H.P. Lovecraft stories on a trip to Philadelphia, and it was one of the best book-trip matches ever. I find Lovecraft’s highly inventive, somewhat overwritten stories of horror and the macabre to be oddly comforting.

      I’m delighted you are enoying The Story of the Cannibal Woman. I strongly recommend you move on to Who Cut Celanire’s Throat?

  10. Monica permalink
    March 2, 2010 11:51 pm

    I am an avid reader, although I do not read on airplanes since it gives me a headache. However, a good book for the long wait in the airport is a always must. Biographies and autobiographies are generally my genre of choice. Insight into the lives of others usually calms my nerves before travel.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 3, 2010 10:55 am

      You are in luck, then, for every year brings a wealth of fine new biographies and autobiographies. A few recent ones I can recommend: Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin; Cheever: A Life, by Blake Bailey; Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, by Brad Gooch; Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, by Fred Kaplan; The Hemmingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed; The Lost City of Z, by David Grann.

  11. PJ Parrish permalink
    March 3, 2010 3:21 pm

    Re dragging a dozen paperbacks on vacation.

    The answer, they say, is the Kindle. Meh…

    I found out years ago that the answer is to pack only two paperbacks (one brain candy for the plane; the other something you’ve been saving up to savor.) And when you are finished with those, give them away, donate them to the B&B library or leave them in a cafe for someone to discover. Then seek out a local bookstore and restock. Whether it’s Shakespeare & Company in Paris or the Cottage Book Shop in Glen Arbor, Michigan, I’ve unearthed gems, always with the help of the people who own the stores, because they know what captures the essence of their unique spot on Earth.

  12. Connie permalink
    March 3, 2010 4:58 pm

    Thanks, Chauncey, for the Selzerman recommendations…I’m one of those people who has to read a series in order, so I’ll start at the beginning…

    Ms. Parrish, I’m not down with the Kindle myself…I have no problem leaving a trail of paperbacks wherever I go.

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