THE BOOK RIOT 50: #30 The Misanthrope’s Guide to Reading While Traveling (or How to Be Left Alone)

To celebrate Book Riot’s  first birthday on Monday, we’re running our best 50 posts from our first year this week. Click here for the running list. This post originally ran March 8, 2012.


One of the best parts of traveling is picking out books for the trip. It’s fun, but don’t let the excitement go to your head. You need selections that will help you endure the “Hell is other people” aspects of air travel. You never know when you’ll encounter the kid who kicks your seatback while her parents enjoy a Xanax-induced nap, or the drunk jerk who harasses the flight attendants, or the cutoff jort-wearing yokel who ignores your earbuds, book, and refusal to make eye contact and asks repeatedly who your favorite Nascar driver is (true story). Worst of all, you could get stuck with a seatmate whose apparent sole mission in life is to keep you from enjoying a few rare hours of uninterrupted reading time. So you must be prepared!

In my daily life, I’m pretty gregarious and friendly. But try to talk to me on a plane, and I will cut you. After several years of experimenting, I’ve developed some tried and true techniques for maintaining my hard-won airplane solitude. Because I can’t buy you all “Go to hell, I’m reading” shirts for your next trip, I thought I’d share these tips instead. If airlines really do start letting peoplechoose seatmates based on Facebook profiles, we’re going to need all the strategy we can find.

Pictured: my travel bag with reading selections for a trip I’m taking this week. NB: We’re starting on the bottom row.


1. Start with 1) your face buried in 2) a paper book that 3) no one will ask you about.

Board as early as you can. Buckle your seatbelt, bury your face, and cast nary a glance at your seatmates as they arrive. Why a paper book? You can’t use an ereader during takeoff, so if you start with one, you’ll have to transition to a paper book at some point in the first few minutes of being on the plane. That creates a dangerous opening in which your seatmate could try to talk to you. So, paper book it is. Ideally, this will be a book that most people would be too embarrassed to ask a stranger about, thus Breasts by Florence Williams. The Best American Sex Writing has worked well for me in the past, too (and it’s fun!).

2. Hide your bestsellers.

You heard me. That “New York Times Bestseller!” note on the cover is the death knell for your airborne quiet time. “Bestseller” translates to “People are talking about this book,” and that means there’s an increased likelihood that your seatmate will recognize the book or–worse–will have read it and want to discuss it with you. If you absolutely must take the latest It Book on a flight, at least take the jacket off. The naked hardback pictured above? That’s Ann Patchett’s blockbuster State of Wonder. It’s a fantastic book, but if you’re taking it on a plane, you better strip it first.

3. No recognizable covers, no Big Name Authors. 

While I’m looking forward to finding out what Chris Cleave’s Gold (coming in July) is about, there’s not enough money in the world to get me to whip it out in a crowded airport. Look at that cover! Looks familiar, eh? Every Suburban Book Club Lady in the country has read Little Bee, and there are few people I want to spend my flight talking to less than the enthusiastic Book Club Lady. This isn’t because I have something against book clubbers–I am one, and god knows they help us keep the lights on–but if you don’t want to spend 2+ hours of your life as the captive audience to a recap of your seatmate’s favorite books, keep the catchy covers under wraps. Ditto for books with Big Name Authors. Cleave qualifies for this too, of course, and pretty much every book clubber in the country read Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife. I’ll be saving Heading Out to Wonderful for a time when I’m safely ensconced in a private reading spot.

4. Nothing that invites shop talk.

In addition to having recognizable covers by well-known authors, Gold and Heading Out to Wonderful violate another major rule: they’re not available to the public yet. If you work in books and take not-yet-published titles on a plane, you risk your seatmate noticing (especially when they’re by Big Name Authors), and if they do, you’ll have to talk about the books AND about how you have access to this not-yet-published item. That will inevitably open a whole other can of worms and will, more often than not, end with the seatmate talking about the book that he/his dad/his neighbor’s sister’s cousin has been trying to get published and how amazing it is. DO NOT WANT.

If you don’t work in books, the rule still applies–if you don’t want to spent your precious travel downtime talking about work, don’t put the topic out there with your reading selections.

5. Use technology strategically.

If you’ve made it through boarding, takeoff, and the first chunk of your flight without any attempted interference from your seatmate, it’s time to assess the safety of bringing out your ereader. If your seatmate is using an ereader or iPad and hasn’t spoken to you yet, you’re most likely clear for Nooking. Same goes for if your seatmate is–praise be to the little fishes–absorbed in his own reading material. But if you’re seated next to the aforementioned jort-wearing yokel, a kindly looking grandma who might be curious about “kids these days,” or (shudder) someone doing their best impression of Puddy from Seinfeld, eread with caution. The minute someone utters the phrase, “Is that one of those electronic book things?” you’re doomed for a round of mile-high show-and-tell.

6. Go for nondescript.

The bound manuscript pictured top row, right is about as nondescript as it gets. Is it a book? A boring graduate school thesis? An even-more-boring report you’re reading for your snooze-inducing corporate retreat? It’s impossible to tell, and that’s a beautiful thing. No manuscripts lying around the house? Pick the most obscure title off your tottering TBR pile, use a plain book cover to “protect” your tome from dirt (and prying eyes), or if you’re reading a hardcover and the thought of removing the dust jacket gives you hives, switch the dust jacket for one less likely to spark conversation. (Yes, I have done this. My need for midflight solitude borders on pathological.)

7. Defend your fortress.

Chatty McChattersons are good at putting on social pressure, but we readers have every right to fly in blissful antisocial quiet. Until airlines start designating no-talking zones or letting us use Facebook to find seatmates who don’t want to make friends, we have to populate our imaginary moats with scary imaginary crocodiles and refuse to give would-be intruders an in. You might feel nervous about saying, “I’m sorry, but I’d really like to read my book,” but you’ll be glad you did. Even better? Offer your seatmate one of your extra books.

Nothing says “leave me the f*ck alone” quite like, “Here! Read this.”

What did I miss? What are your preferred methods for claiming your castle of quietude?

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