The Girl on the Plane

What book would you take on a flight?

Words: Lee Tulloch

I’m reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Several people have recommended it to me as the perfect ‘plane book.’

At 771 pages, there’s enough to keep a reader occupied all the way to Helsinki and back, accounting for delays and layovers. In fact, it’s long enough that you could probably take it around the globe twice and still have plenty of pages left for reading in the bathtub at your destination.

Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize Winning The Luminaries, weighing in at 834 pages, has also been recommended for my next trip. If I carried the hardback rather than the Kindle edition onboard, I imagine it would have many uses. A footrest, perhaps, or something to stand on when I can’t quite reach the back of the overhead bin.

I don’t mean to make light of Catton’s heavyweight achievement. By all accounts it’s a brilliant, complex novel. But is a long book necessarily a good book for a flight?

Take The Goldfinch, for instance.  I’m at page 283 and I’m finding it less than engrossing. This statement will horrify people who love it – and there seem to be many of them, including the Pulitzer’s distinguished judges – but if I were stuck on a 14-hour flight with only this book I’d be cursing the choice. It may be a superior piece of writing but for me I would find its density too much like hard work in the thin air of an airplane cabin.

Some people have good powers of concentration, are relaxed travellers and can channel out all the noise in the cabin, retreating into a self-created cone of silence that is conducive to reading the translated works of Cicero and Proust – or Donna Tartt.

Me, I get distracted. There are safety announcements, strange engine noises, crying babies, chatty flight attendants and seatbelt lights dinging on and off constantly. I can even be dragged out of a sleeping pill-induced coma by the chime of a call button.

The airport book displays are stacked with lazy thrillers, silly romances and dumb pseudo-erotic potboilers.

Which is why it’s a waste for me to bring Great Works of Literature onto a flight. There are inevitably many moments when my eyes glaze over with tiredness or my concentration is lost to the drift of a conversation happening around the toilets and I find that I skip whole, beautifully written, paragraphs without realising. The conditions in a plane can ruin a great book.

On the other hand, I don’t like reading anything too lightweight. The airport book displays are stacked with lazy thrillers, silly romances and dumb pseudo-erotic potboilers. I wouldn’t read them at home, so I’m not inclined to waste the rare and wonderful opportunity of a few hours clear reading time with the literary equivalent of The Real Housewives of Melbourne.

What I really need is a book that is so engrossing the hours whiz by, but not so engrossing I can’t put it down for a little nap. And after I’ve had my nap, I like to be able to pick up the book where I’ve left off, the characters and plot memorable enough to survive a dose of triazolam.

Two popular novels of recent times fit the bill perfectly – Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Both take you hostage until you’ve devoured the last word. (Of course, if hate the narrators of these two books, you’ll feel like a hostage of another kind.) Neither is slight, but not too deep either, with that unputdownable quality that comes from intriguing characters and original plotting, where every page offers something unpredictable.

I’ve just finished The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and I think that, too, is an almost perfect plane book. Well-written, gripping, but not so deep that I literally lose the plot when we strike a touch of turbulence.

I tend to read fiction, but great narrative non-fiction, especially if it relates to the destination where I’m about to land, can be equally as absorbing. As is a good, rollicking autobiography like Keith Richards’ Life   or  Patti Smith’s wonderful Just Kids. 

Mostly, I gravitate to well-written crime novels by masters like Ian Rankin, Henning Mankell, Mo Hayder, PD James, Elizabeth George and Michael Connolly. But I’ve read everything they’ve written so I’m always on the lookout for something similarly gripping.

Thinking about my next trip, I asked sixty friends what they considered a good read for a flight. The most popular suggestion by far was The Goldfinch. Sigh.

What would you add to the list?







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