What makes for the best travel books? You tell me
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?