Picking The Right Book For A Train Ride

This is a guest post from Constance Augusta Aloysius Zaber. Constance Augusta (yes, that is one first name) Aloysius Zaber is a proud New Englander currently living in Northampton, MA where she spends her time baking, haunting libraries, making zines, and talking about sex. She’s almost always thinking about Virginia Woolf or Puritans. Follow her on Twitter @constancezaber.

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The list of my favorite forms of transportation is a fairly short one. In fact it’s not really a “list” and more of just “TRAIN” written in massive letters with several arrows pointing at it for emphasis. Setting aside the bathrooms, cost of tickets, and intimate seating arrangements, I love just about everything that comes along with trains (mostly I love pretending I’m in an Agatha Christie murder mystery).

I’m currently packing for an upcoming train trip and the first thing on my to-do list is pick which book I’m taking with me. When I was younger I would just throw the unread books on my bedside table into a bag and call it good, but I’ve managed to get some semblance of control over my packing. Now as a mature adult I spend an absurd amount of time carefully weighing the pros and cons of every book until I finally select just one (or two). As I was going through my options for this trip I found myself asking the same questions for each book. It seems that all my years of reading on trains have came together to create a simple two-category test to identify why some books are better for train trips than others.

First, there are obvious questions that need to be considered about the size of the book you’re bringing. (If you’re using an e-reader feel free to skip to the next paragraph.) Is it going to fit in your bag? Is it so heavy that it’ll drag you down if you have to run to catch your train? But what if it’s a long ride and you need a big book to last for the whole trip? You may want to go for some smaller books over one large one. While I’m no longer the overpacker I once was, I still have a tendency to pack a little more than I really need and I like a few smaller books because I fit them into my bag like it’s a game of Tetris.

The next thing I look at is the style of the book. I try to avoid big epics with lots of tiny details and characters that I’ll need to keep track of. Even if it’s another six hours until my stop I know that there are going to be a whole host of distractions that will draw me away from the plot. Between babies crying, the train lurching, chatty neighbors who just can’t take a hint, interesting conversations to listen in on, and that person who keeps kicking your seat you’ll probably end up reading the same page of tiny, closely set text over and over again. It can be tricky to judge this quality if you’re looking at a new book, so I like taking an author I’ve read before or a nice collection of short stories. If I’m considering an author who I’m not familiar with I look at reviews for keywords/phrases like, “connected narratives,” “vignettes,” “summer reading,” and the like.

My ultimate reading on a train experience came in high school when I devoured John Updike’s S. while rattling along the tracks from Vermont down to New York. Not only was it slim enough to fit in my pocket when I walked to the dining car, but its short chapters made up of letters home and transcribed recordings were ideal for a trip where talkative older woman kept sitting next to me. I spent that trip wrapped up in Updike’s lovely little sentences, traveling along with S., both of us native New Englanders, as we made our journeys to the big city  and an out of the way ashram in the Arizona desert.

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