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5 Classic Books You Can Finish on a Long Flight

Flying economy doesn’t need to be agony.

Henry Phillips

I describe flying economy as time travel. I suspect any of you who regularly yawn and contort your way to the antipodes understand what I mean. Time relents behind the fuselage crust, the cabin pressurizes and, upon deplaning, it’s however many hours ahead of your internal clock and you can’t understand anyone.

So unless you’re the type of person hellbent on eking out as much work per second as possible, or you’re someone who can sleep through the pell-mell, well, then, flying is desperate. It begs no pardon in tearing away hours. Distraction is paramount.

And holy fuck do the movies and TV not cut it. The same blockbuster nonsense sits on there for what seems like years. And, even if you do find something good, you end up watching half the film on the all-too-tiny screens of the people around you. It seems that in lieu of any remote comfort, we’re forced to stare blankly, wander the fart-filled aisles, choke down some oobleck meal, weep, repeat…

Though, it is a good opportunity to read, if you can manage it. Here are five books worth devouring on your next trip in the sky.

Three Men in a Boat


Author: Jerome K. Jerome
Pages: 361

As a phrase, “Victorian comic literature” seems a miserable trifecta, but Three Men in a Boat is truly enduring entertainment. Modern readers find Jerome’s 1889 novel rife with unexpected comedic freshness, even if at times it reads a touch purple. A simple story about three lads and their dog skiffing down the Thames; mishaps and hijinks abound. A welcome freedom to contrast the ever-attenuating centimeters of seat space.

Buy Now: $10

The Quiet American


Author: Graham Greene
Pages: 180

War-waging hearts and minds underscores Graham Greene’s most-loved novel. In the 1950s, near the onset of the Vietnamese conflict, a British journalist and an idealistic CIA agent meet and fight over the journalist’s Vietnamese love-interest. The novel is quasi-allegorical, with a certain sagacity portending American foreign policy over most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Buy Now: $14

Lost Horizon


Author: James Hilton
Pages: 272

A novel that centers around a plane crash might seem gauche for this list, but it’s what comes after that makes it worth reading. Hilton’s massively sold 1933 novel coined the name Shangri-La and was the first mass-market paperback ever printed. Near-immortality, harpsichords and Akron-made dishwashers in a rural Chinese lamasery in the wake of a near-death experience — this is at the heart of adventure with the sort of mystically restorative and modern amenities we would hope to find just beyond the airport gangway.

Buy Now: $10

King Solomon’s Mines


Author: H. Rider Haggard
Pages: 320

Often dubbed the working man’s Heart of Darkness, Haggard’s novel was the progenitor of a slew of popular Victorian adventure novels. The British Empire was vast in 1885, and a book detailing (inaccurately, though entertainingly) the unexplored reaches enthralled readers. Birthing one of the most memorable characters in popular fiction, Allan Quatermai, King Solomon’s Mines shows us how to take adventure to the brink without losing a sense of fun. A much needed reminder, as the drinks cart hits your elbow for the fifth time.

Buy Now: $8

Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age


Author: Bohumil Hrabal
Pages: 160

You’ve just heard the announcement for the fourth time and the plane is doubling back over the airport, waiting for clearance. You know that once you land, the taxi will take thirty minutes more. You can’t unbuckle. You can’t sit up straight. Your neighbor’s elbow is wedged somewhere in your duodenum. Bohumil Hrabal’s novel, written as one continuous sentence rambled by an old man at three sunbathing women, is the sometimes sentimental and sometimes funny complementary comfort here. Like “flying to a vacation,” it sounds counterintuitive, perhaps even tortuous. But it’s a beautiful ride.

Buy Now: $10

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