Readin’ On A Jet Plane: How Do You Pick Books for Long Flights?

Edd McCracken

Staff Writer

Edd McCracken lives in Scotland, dislikes book spine breakers and loves when small words harmonise to make big ideas. Follow him on Twitter:  @EddMcCracken

planeFirst World Problems existed long before some smug 20th century types erected a podium for countries to congratulate themselves for not being African.

The Romans, for instance, bitched whenever their decadence was curtailed. A lack of fresh flamingo tongues to stuff their dormice with before the big feast? The new villa’s vomitorium not as big as the neighbours? This was antiquity’s fennel shortage. There are loads of ancient mosaics in Italy with #firstworldproblem on them. Probably.

And with each boast-masked-as-pressing-issue-laced-with-knowing-self-deprication, the Visigoths made their spears all the sharper.

With that in mind, let me do my bit to usher the downfall of civilisation. My First World Problem is picking books to read on long-haul flights. I am terrible at it.

The realisation came as I prepare to spend 26 hours in various flying tin cans. As I’m writing this I’m staring at my book shelves utterly paralysed. Do I go fiction or non-fiction? Something fluffy and easy to read? Or use this forced captivity to finally get round to cracking Moby Dick or Ulysses? Do I take multiple books so I can switch depending on my mood? Or be monogamous and commit to finishing just one? Does a travel guide to where you’re going count?

And once I actually pick a book, put it in my carry on, and get it out on the flight, I frequently don’t even read it. It just sits there as an ornament on my fold down table, staring at me, daring me to stop watching The Avengers and open it.

In theory, long flights should be a reader’s dream – no distractions, forced to just sit for hours on end, the clamouring outside world is 30,000 feet away. I know for many flights are the perfect book bubble.

Maybe it is the mode of transport that turns this avid reader into a dull-witted cultural zombie. Trains? No problem. There’s something about the whizzing scenery that trills the soul and is the perfect accompaniment for the worlds being conjured up on the page. But in the featureless vacuum of a plane I struggle. It is like eating eggs benedict without the hollandaise (now there’s a First World Problem).

I have tried airport novels – your Dan Browns and Michael Crichtons – to no avail. The only two books that I’ve read in their entirety on flights were Double Indemnity by James M Cain (because it is short) and The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (I have no explanation). Maybe the secret is to read novellas set in Newark, New Jersey. Now there’s something that might harmonise with a featureless vacuum.

If anyone has any tips or their own rituals, please share. What criteria do you apply to choosing your in-flight reading? How do you avoid the temptation to just occupy your mind with either old episodes of Seinfeld or the creeping paranoia that DVT is about to make your ankles explode?

Together we can solve this problem and keep the Barbarians from the gates. Until we tweet complaining about the stodginess of our quinoa. Then we’re all doomed.


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