16 Little Books To Read On Long Journeys

Short enough to finish in one plane, train, or car ride. Meaningful enough to stick with you throughout your travels. posted on

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1. Dubliners by James Joyce

Flickr: holgalicious / Creative Commons

Page Count: 236
Excerpt:“He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances. He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a verb in the past tense.”

Joyce’s short story collection focuses on the details of ordinary life in early 20th century Dublin. The stories are quiet, of simple people with humble ambitions in the moment of epiphany, and planted in a city at once grotesque and beautiful.

2. Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

Simon and Schuster / Via eveningstarbooks.info

Page Count: 209
Excerpt: “People in free societies don’t have to fear the pathology of the state. We create our own frenzy, our own mass convulsions, driven by thinking machines that we have no final authority over. The frenzy is barely noticeable most of the time. It’s simply how we live.”

Protagonist and asset manager Eric Packer rides across Manhattan to get to his hair appointment, and along the way he’s confronted by the danger and decadence of the city and, specifically, his Wall Street lifestyle. The 28-year-old billionaire’s journey never takes him out of the city (and barely out of his limo), but it’s an odyssey in its own right, with some risky business deals, a dangerous threat, and plenty of sex.

3. A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

Vintage / Via amazon.com

Page Count: 207
Excerpt: “I called Monsieur Menicucci, and he asked anxiously about my pipes. I told him they were holding up well. ‘That pleases me,’ he said, ‘because it is minus five degrees, the roads are perilous, and I am fifty-eight years old. I am staying at home.’ He paused, then added, ‘I shall play the clarinet.’”

Peter Mayle turned a lifelong dream into reality when he and his wife relocated from Britain to Provence, France. He let all of us readers live vicariously through that move when he created this celebratory autobiographical novel. It tracks the couple’s first year in a 200-year-old stone farmhouse in essentially the middle of nowhere, along with all of the unexpected wonders and obstacles of country life.

4. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Mariner / Via npr.org

Page Count: 198
Excerpt: “Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”

In this collection of short stories, Jhumpa Lahiri describes the lives of various Indians and Indian-Americans, from tales of illicit affairs and failing marriages to memories of markets in Calcutta and expatriation. The context is Indian heritage, but the stories are universal to anyone who has ever experienced feelings of foreignness or alienation.

5. Speedboat by Renata Adler

New York Review Books / Via nybooks.com

Page Count: 192
Excerpt: “I think when you are truly stuck, when you have stood still in the same spot for too long, you throw a grenade in exactly the spot you were standing in, and jump, and pray. It is the momentum of last resort.”

Speedboat was a new kind of fiction when it debuted in 1976, presenting a series of seemingly disjointed vignettes about fresh-faced New York journalist Jen Fain. Told through the apathetic, overly intellectualized, and sometimes anxious voice of the protagonist, it takes us along her urban exploration: from bad dates to dinner parties to overheard exchanges on the street.

6. Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Granta Books

Page Count: 181
Excerpt: “Happy were the ages when the starry sky was a map of all possible paths, ages of such perfect social integration that no drug was required to link the hero to the whole.”

In an essay about his debut novel, author Ben Lerner explains that he wrote the book “in part by working against an image of the conventional novel.” His protagonist, the unreliable young American poet Adam Gordon, is struggling with the same resistance. Living in Madrid on a fellowship grant, he spends his time — rather than working on his epic poem — getting stoned, lost, and caught up in navel-gazing about the authenticity of his life and his art.

7. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Harvest / Via wordpress.com

Page Count: 176
Excerpt: “You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”

Italo Calvino imagines a conversation between explorer Marco Polo and the aging Emperor Kublai Khan about all of the fantastical cities which Marco Polo has seen, and it manifests as a series of brief passages about the ways travelers interact with places. It’s a surreal collection, using cities as backdrops for broader themes like desire, memory, and human nature.

8. The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara

Kiepenheuer & Witsch / Via amazon.com

Page Count: 170
Excerpt: “The two days I’d planned stretched like elastic into eight and with the bittersweet taste of goodbye mingling with my inveterate bad breath I finally felt myself lifted definitively away on the winds of adventure toward worlds I envisaged would be stranger than they were, into situations I imagined would be much more normal than they turned out to be.”

In his memoir, Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara recounts his nine-month journey across South America, where he witnessed the social injustices — the oppression of communists, the exploitation of mine workers — that transformed him into the political icon we now know.

9. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

Page Count: 160
Excerpt: “Nothing is stranger or more ticklish than a relationship between people who know each other only by sight, who meet and observe each other daily — no hourly — and are nevertheless compelled to keep up the pose of an indifferent stranger, neither greeting nor addressing each other, whether out of etiquette or their own whim.”

Gustav von Aschenbach is battling writer’s block while on vacation in Venice, and is soon transfixed by a young boy staying in the same hotel. As the city around him is overcome by a plague, Gustav himself falls into an obsession that simultaneously awakens and destroys him.

10. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Bantam Classics / Via amazon.com

Page Count: 160
Excerpt: “‘When someone is seeking,’ said Siddhartha, ‘it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal.’”

The journey central to Siddhartha is a spiritual one. Set in ancient India, Siddhartha’s title character abandons his Brahmin life to become a traveling beggar, joined by his friend Govinda as he fasts, meditates, meets Buddha, and ultimately discovers both universal and personal truths.

11. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

Harper Perennial / Via dustanddrag.tumblr.com

Page Count: 152
Excerpt: “What did she so desire escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all.”

If you like your journeys full of conspiracy and intrigue, Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern novella is the way to go. After being named executer of the estate of her late ex-boyfriend, Oedipa Maas finds herself entangled in a centuries-old conflict between mail distribution companies and roaming Southern California trying to piece it together.

12. We the Animals by Justin Torres

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / Via jocelynjohnson.com

Page Count: 144
Excerpt: “We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats, we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. […] We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”

Justin Torres’ debut novel opens like a punch in the gut, giving an energetic introduction to three insatiable brothers. Their family is chaotic, poor, and a bit dysfunctional, but their love is fierce and told in almost magical descriptions. The journey that reveals itself belongs to the youngest brother, extending himself from the home and into the world.

13. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

Page Count: 138
Excerpt: “We ourselves shall be loved for awhile and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

The basis of The Bridge of San Luis Rey is tragedy — the collapse of the title bridge, and the deaths of the visitors who were standing on it — but the tragedy acts as an entry into a meditation on free will, chance, and the possibility of divine intervention. After witnessing the fall, the monk Brother Juniper devotes his life to investigating those who died in attempt to make sense of their ends, and the result is a deep look into the meaning of love and the human condition.

14. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Page Count: 127
Excerpt: “It was dark now as it becomes dark quickly after the sun sets in September. He lay against the worn wood of the bow and rested all that he could. The first stars were out. He did not know the name of Rigel but he saw it and knew soon they would all be out and he would have all his distant friends. ‘The fish is my friend too,’ he said aloud. ‘I have never seen or heard of such a fish. But I must kill him. I am glad we do not have to try to kill the stars.’”

Hemingway’s parable about the old fisherman Santiago and his days-long battle with a large marlin is a classic for a reason: The ideas of nobility in ambition, struggle, and failure are just as salient today as in 1952.

15. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Macmillan

Page Count: 116
Excerpt: “Now he slept soundly through the nights, and often he dreamed of trains, and often of one particular train: He was on it; he could smell the coal smoke; a world went by. And then he was standing in that world as the sound of the train died away. A frail familiarity in these scenes hinted to him that they came from his childhood.”

Set against the backdrop of the rapidly changing 20th-century American West, Train Dreams follows day laborer Robert Grainer as he builds a life after losing his family. It reads as folklore, juxtaposing loss, resilience, and a touch of adventure in haunting prose.

16. A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Via amazon.com

Page Count: 96
Excerpt: “It is as if, then, the beauty—the beauty of the sea, the land, the air, the trees, the market, the people, the sounds they make—were a prison, and as if everything and everybody inside it were locked in and everything and everybody that is not inside it were locked out. And what might it do to ordinary people to live in this way every day? What might it do to them to live in such heightened, intense surroundings every day?”

In this autobiographical account, Jamaica Kincaid tackles travel from a different perspective: that of the native, whose home is regularly overrun by tourists. Kincaid speaks about her memories of colonial Antigua, condemning both the Antiguan government and the tourism industry, while contrasting the experiences of visitors and residents. Her exposure of such harsh truths is a tough but necessary read, especially for those of us who have been tourists.

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