By Keith Richards
For me, choosing a book to read while traveling is of the utmost importance. Long waits at train stations and airports and hours spent on trains and airplanes afford me large blocks of time in which to read. (fun fact: we travel on the cheap, which means longer waits than you). Additionally, my wife falls asleep on anything that moves and in virtually any waiting area so you can understand why the choice of book becomes importance as a way to fend off boredom.
But the most crucial reason for a good book while traveling owes to my lingering distrust of aviation. After three decades, thousands of hours in the air and countless long-haul flights over the Pacific Ocean, I have never assuaged my fear of flying. My rational side explains to me all about the safety mechanisms that are in place both on the ground and in the plane that make accidents virtually negligible and the millions upon millions of flights that take off and land every day without a hitch. I argue with myself that the law of averages are firmly on my side and flying is safer than driving a motorcycle in Southeast Asia, which I do with impunity... blah, blah, blah...
But all that goes out the little oval window once the wheels leave the tarmac. At that point I have thousands of meters of empty space under my feet and I spend hours conscious of the things that might go wrong. Most people complain about the cramped conditions of flying coach. I never get that far. I'm imagining a horrific mid-air collision between two 737s. Blocks of people in airplane seats being sucked out into a five minute free fall. I'm also sure that guy waiting for the bathroom is going to accidentally slip and open the cabin door, depressurizing the cabin, killing us all.
I know, I'm not that fun at parties.
But I have found a solution for the worse of this irrational fear: A good book.
No, not The Good Book, although there are some out there that might argue that I might find solace in the ramshackle, slapdash writings of superstitious ancient Hebrews and Greeks. But I'm talking about any good book. And finding just the right book for the flight is imperitive to my psychological well-being.
Good books on the ground and good books in the air are two very different things. For example, Richard Dawkins is an excellent scientific writer who I enjoy reading, but his work is extraordinarily taxing and requires a lot of brain power, something I cannot count on when I'm in the air thinking about random air pockets that might send the plane careening into the ocean at 600 km/h. Conversely, Kurt Vonnegut is probably my favorite author of all time, but his books tend to be a bit on the short side, creating a horrifying possibility: I might finish the book mid-flight and be left with thoughts of my own fiery demise.
A good airplane book needs to be long (The Stand, anything by Neil Gaiman), not intellectually taxing (Harry Potter has always served me well on airplanes) but not stupid (sorry Twilight), cannot have any mention of airplanes or fiery demises (Catch-22 is a bad choice and so is the Bible). It needs to be light, preferably funny and immensely readable... as in eyes-on-the-book-for-six-hours readable.
Over the years I have had some pretty good luck with in-flight books. The Harry Potter series, as mentioned above, has got me through at least three flights. Other books that engaged me though the perils of flying include The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood and Hollywood by Gore Vidal.
A famous failure was The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl which I mistakenly took on a flight from Hong Kong to Toronto a couple of years ago. It was so mind-numbingly boring that I had to actually (gasp!) watch the in-flight entertainment. Six straight episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond and a viewing of Along Came Polly. These atrocities frayed my sanity so much it took me a week, two books and a viewing of the Big Lebowski to settle down after landing.
Life by Keith Richards (and a ghost writer, obviously) fell seamlessly into its role as caretaker of Ryan's psyche on our trip to the Philippines. It was long and infinitely interesting. It was actually the sort of book that I would have read voraciously no matter where I was because I'm a sucker for rock n' roll biographies. Nothing like anecdotes about famous rock stars (Gram Parsons!!!!) and overdoses (Everybody!!!) to keep me turning pages (never mind that the bits about Maggie Trudeau didn't come until page 500 or so... that also kept me reading).
Keith Richards was a safe bet for me. Wildly entertaining. And after The Dante Club, I'm not particularly interested in wagering on a book come boarding time.