Ah, the joys of holiday travel. The long security lines, the flight delays, the screaming infants, the airport cuisine.
The good news is, you finally have a few hours trapped in a tin can with nothing to do but finally read that book that’s been recommended to you hundreds of times. On the flip side, don’t get stuck with a book that doesn’t hold your interest. The best plane reading is both well-written and compulsively readable—books that everyone, no matter who they are, or where they are going, can devour.
With help from these books, you won’t even notice that there were no snacks offered on a 2.5 hour flight with a 1.5 hour delay, or that the catering crew forgot to restock the Bombay Sapphire on their way back down the Eastern seaboard. And during that patch of terrifying turbulence, you can at least tell yourself, hey, I went down reading a great book! Just kidding: We’re sure you’ll reach your turkey dinner with a side of family drama in one well-read piece.
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20-minute flight delay (It’s “built in” to your scheduled arrival time.)
Leaving Atocha Station and/or 10:04, by Ben Lerner
Poet Ben Lerner’s first book, Leaving Atocha Station, was a sleeper success. Lumped in with the “auto-fiction” genre, both Atocha and 10:04 are written around actual events in Lerner’s life—Atocha on Lerner’s time as a poet living in Spain on fellowship, and 10:04 vaguely circling around what happens after Lerner’s best friend proposes that they have a child together. Both books are beautifully written, compulsively readable, and perfect for travel. They will leave you pondering your own existence / purpose in life.
The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
Joan Didion’s devastating memoir on her grief following the death of her husband is simply un-put-downable. You truly won’t need any other entertainment for your flight, unless you’re a fast reader and you get through it in the first 45 minutes. With Didion’s masterful prose and harrowing subject matter, it’s entirely possible.
30-minute flight delay (The last plane was late.)
Atonement, by Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel tells the story of how one fateful night—and ill-considered assumption by a young girl—goes on to effect one man, and her sister, by proxy, for the rest of their lives. McEwan knows how to write gorgeous after gorgeous sentence. The twist ending makes this novel even more unforgettable. You’ll want to immediately return to the beginning and read it all over again. (Or, depending on your constitution, through it out the window.)
Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides second novel (his first was the also compulsively readable The Virgin Suicides) is an epic, sweeping family drama about a young girl who is born a hermaphrodite. Eugenides explores the family history leading up to her condition and her journey into adulthood, in expert form. You will not be able to put this book down. Before you know it, the stewardess will be telling you to put your seat back into its upright position.
Possession, by A.S. Byatt
Fans of romantic poetry, Jane Austen, the Brontës, and the brilliant world of academia and English Literature will feast on this delicious novel by A.S. Byatt, which tells the story of two modern day academics trying to solve the mystery of the unknown love affair between two famous Romantic-era poets.
1+ hour flight delay (Blame it on the weather.)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
In this novel Michael Chabon manages to make the world of comic books totally fascinating and exciting, even to those who don’t get a hoot about comic books. Kavalier and Clay are two Jewish cousins who come to New York during WWII. This book is deeply cinematic; it has everything: the war in New York, the comic industry, and a love triangle. If you love this book, you should also give Chabon’s utterly delightful Wonder Boys a try.
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
Have you caught a glimpse of people reading a gigantic book called The Goldfinch last year and wondered why anyone could ever get through a book that damn long? Well, The Secret History, Tartt’s 1992 novel, is the reason why. This novel, about a group of classmates at an Ivy league type university that find themselves mixed up in the occult and murder of Greek tragedy proportions, is unstoppable. Tartt is a fantastic writer. When you think that people had to wait 11 years between her second book The Little Friend (2002) and The Goldfinch (2013), the commitment to read her books, despite their length, makes sense.
3+ hour long flight delay (You might as well move into the airport.)
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
Kate Atkinson’s unorthodox novel tells the story of Ursula, who is born, then dies on the next page. Her life and death keep repeating, in differing interpolations, of what could’ve been and what happened, based on innocuous decisions. Life After Life follows Ursula eventually into adulthood, where a decision to study in Germany leads her directly to WWII, and to Adolf Hitler himself.
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
Though the lives of Henry VIII and his six wives have been the source of endless fascination and many novels of historical fiction, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall focuses instead on Henry’s most trusted advisor, Thomas Cromwell. Mantel is such an expert writer (who obviously does an enormous amount of research) you nearly forget that the life of this book takes place in 16th-century England. If you love this book, you’re in luck. It’s a trilogy. Its sequel, Bringing Up the Bodies, deals with Henry’s marriage to the notorious Anne Boleyn. A third volume, The Mirror and the Light, is in progress.