How to pick the perfect book to read on a plane.


July 11, 2024, 10:11am

I recently took some long flights and found myself puzzling over which books to bring along for the plane ride. So here, in no particular order, are a few guiding principles to help you compile your in-flight library.

I’m dedicating this piece to the person on my flight back from Italy who audibly reacted to nine, uninterrupted hours of Yellowstone. I know there’s a book out there that can tear you away from those sexy Westerners.

Pick a book that will be distracting.
Flying is full of indignities and discomforts, so bringing along a book that will grip you and draw you in is ideal. A zippy thriller or something scary or speculative should do the trick. Maybe a locked-door mystery, or a beloved classic from your childhood you’ve been meaning to reread? There’s already so much overstimulation on a plane; you don’t want to look up and get distracted by the guy clipping his toenails, or wondering what Yellowstone is even about, because you haven’t seen a horse in two hours and you thought this was a cowboys thing.

Avoid density.
30,000 feet might not be the best altitude to reach for that theory book you’ve been meaning to challenge yourself with.

Avoid books where something bad happens in or to a plane.
Obvious, but best to avoid the topic of planes altogether. This is especially true if you’re a nervous flier, or someone who thinks flight is pure hubris, and that if man were meant to fly God would have fashioned us with wings.

Pick a book with a protagonist who overcomes challenge and adversity.
The way airlines are treating people these days can feel like you’ve been dropped into the tests and trials from Joseph Campell’s template for the Hero’s Journey. Lean into those plotting tropes and pick something where a character emerges on the other side of the story stronger and wiser, even though they dealt with multiple delays, TSA throwing out hundreds of dollars worth of toiletries, and leg-room suited for an Apollo capsule rocketing to the Moon.

Pick something that you can easily dip in and out of.
There’s going to be distractions on your flight, so prepare for it. You want to be able to pick your book back up easily if you lose your place because the drink cart clangs your shoulder, or your neighbor is fidgeting, or you get distracted by yet another crowded shot of easily a dozen Yellowstone cowboys sitting around a table and not a single horse in sight.

Don’t bring something you wrote or something that is about you.
This is admittedly a niche problem, but if I look over and see your face on the book jacket, I’m going to be annoyed that you’re doing something so performative in public. Be courteous to your fellow travelers: don’t make them fear they’re about to end up in the background of a TikTok.

Don’t bring anything too big.
There’s a guy at my YMCA who is always banging these gigantic hardcovers against the metal lockers, and I can only imagine the chaos he unleashes on a plane. If a book is big enough that it’s going to tear off the pocket in the seat in front of you, it’s too big.

Bring lots of short books.
This, in my mind, is the move. Lots of little books solves many on-board problems: you can easily pull out a couple for the flight, and pack the rest away in the overheard; you’ll have plenty of options; and you’ll have a sense of accomplishment from reading a bunch of books on your trip.

Sidebar: Which airline is cool enough to start a novellas-only imprint dedicated to in-flight reading?

Bring something you’re excited about.
Overall, a plane is the perfect place to leave your pretensions behind. For a while, you’re disconnected. Read something “embarrassing” or “unliterary”—you’re in the sky, only the birds can judge you!

It’s just you, your book, and a seven-inch image of Kevin Costner in a dizzying array of cowboy hats, constantly in your peripheral vision. Happy flying!



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