I Need Suggestions! What’s a Great Book to Read on an Airplane?

My daughter and I are going to London next week. I’m not a huge traveler, but I know that novelty and challenge boost happiness, that new experiences stay in the memory better than familiar experiences, and that shared adventures are a great way to get closer to the people we love. And in case there are traveling challenges along the way, I always comfort myself with the Secret of Adulthood that my mother taught me: The things that go wrong often make the best memories.

Plus I do love London.

But here’s my question: what books should I take? I’ll have a lot of airplane time, and I love to read on airplanes — I get to focus, without interruption, for so long.  Plus I’ll have reading time while we’re there.

What books do you suggest? I have a bunch of books in my stack, but none of them seem right. For instance, I have a lot of books about color, but several of them are extremely heavy, and as obsessed as I am with color, it’s not a subject that I want to read about for five hours straight.

I want a terrific, gripping, beautifully written novel or memoir or book of history.  And I want paperback, so it’s easier to carry.

My husband suggested John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Thumbs up?

What else would you suggest?

I checked out three e-books from the library (technology is amazing), but I do like to bring physical books as well.

Do you love reading on airplanes? Where’s your favorite place to read?

I’m going to the bookstore this weekend, so make your suggestions quickly!

  • NadiaT

    “Another Woman’s Daughter” or “The Last Time We Spoke” (both by Fiona Sussman). These are both great novels to read on a plane – I read them in about 3 sittings the first time. They might make you cry though…

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks for the suggestions!

  • Becky

    Hey Gretchen, I don’t know if it’s your thing, but I just read ‘the Girls’ by Emma Cline in one plane ride. Have fun!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ll check it out–

  • Jessica

    Given how voracious of a reader you are, you may have already read some of these but my favorite beautifully written novels are: Love in the time of Cholera (Garcia Marquez), Atonement (McEwan), Suite Francaise (Nemirovsky), Cloud Atlas (Mitchell), and NW (Zadie Smith). Great non-fiction are The Righteous Mind (Haidt), good in such a polarized election year, and Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin which is fascinating, especially for dog owners!

    • NadiaT

      Agreed! The Righteous Mind is such a good book.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ve read some of these but not all, great suggestions.

  • Ольга Белова

    I really loved ‘One Hundred Years Of Solitude’ when I traveled last time, but I’m sure you’ve read it =) Maybe Bernard Werber’s ‘Custom paradise’? Not the lightest book to read, but it will force you to think about things in the world outside of the box =)
    Have a great trip!

  • Alexandra

    When asked for a plane read, I always suggest The Secret History by Donna Tartt and The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis. Both super page turners.

    • gretchenrubin

      LOVE the Secret History. I’ve read it several times. Will check out the Tevis.

  • MaryK5

    Fiction: ‘Atmospheric Disturbances’ by Rivka Galchen. It’s not long, it’s a strange and poignant story, and I found it very funny. If you like the word ‘simulacrum’, you’ll love it, though I didn’t realize I liked it till I read this book!
    Non-fiction: ‘The Possessed, Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them’ by Elif Batuman. It’s not long either, and is part memoir, part window into academia and the cult of Russian authors, part introduction to Russian lit, and it has a summary of ‘The Possessed’ I found hilarious.
    (If by some chance you haven’t read ‘Bel Canto’ by Ann Patchett, it is an enchanting novel that puts you in a different world the whole time you’re reading it.)

    Have a wonderful trip!


    Gretchen, I think you need to go all-in and read a London book. Rutherford’s London is 800 pages, but in paperback. Brick Lane? Or here’s a list: http://londonist.com/2015/10/what-s-the-best-london-novel-the-results.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great idea! thanks!

  • Jennifer

    I like to read in bed (before sleeping or in the AM) and on my porch. I love the idea of having a reading nook–I bought my daughters pappasan chairs with a soft cushions and blankets so they could snuggle up and read.
    I hope you have a great time in London–I was there a month ago. If you have never been, you should definitely go to the Treasures room at the British Library. They have amazing artifacts-Jane Austen’s writing desk, a letter written by Queen Elizabeth about Mary Queen of Scots, a daVinci notebook, etc. And I love that they call it their ‘Treasures room.’ Also, since you are a fan, the Harry Potter experience at the Warner Brothers Studios was fantastic. I hope that is on your itinerary. Have a wonderful time!

    • gretchenrubin

      Great suggestion about the British Library – and YES we’re going to the studio. So excited.

  • Dianne Frayne

    If you’re not acquainted with Inspector Gamache and the population of Three Pines (in the Eastern Townships of Quebec), start the mystery series by Louise Penny with “Still Life” and read the next dozen in order – there’s a new one coming out at the end of August as well.

    • rholmes27

      I cannot say how much I love this series.

  • katybee

    “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is one of my favorite novels. yes it’s a gripping spy story but it’s about so much more – belief, betrayal, loyalty. It’s also that unusual novel that is a page turner while engaging you on a deeper level.

    I’m also a big Kate Atkinson fan – “Life After Life” or her quartet of the Jackson Brodie novels, where she plays with the detective genre. She is such a clever and engaging writer.

    Or the wonderful English writer, Jane Gardam. “Old Filth” is a great read about a successful barrister who was once a Raj orphan. That one was followed up by “The Man in the Wooden Hat” with the same characters but now told from the point of view of his wife.

    I do like to read writers from my destination.

    • gretchenrubin

      LOVE Jane Gardam, have read most of her books. Great other suggestions too.

  • Kristin Thompson

    I really enjoyed “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert. It is less well known than her other books, but I found it very engaging. It’s historical fiction with a strong female protagonist.

    • gretchenrubin

      I loved it!

    • lolabelle

      Great recommendation! I love that book.

    • I recently finished this one. I found myself slowing down as I got further through the book because I didn’t want to reach the end. A very interesting story!

  • carolineeeeeeee

    I know you don’t like descriptions, so I’ll just list according to genre:

    Memoir combined with learning / history:

    Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
    Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell (funny, too)


    The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis
    The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen (set in the world of the Saudi elites)

    Super-weird yet totally enveloping fantasy:

    1Q84 by Haruki Marakami

    Have a great trip!

    • gretchenrubin

      I really want to read 1Q84 but it’s so giant I fear to take it on a trip! For when I return.

  • Elizabeth

    “Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening” by Carol Wall is superb. I won’t ruin it by telling you anything else about it. 😉

  • Arwen Hann

    Have you read The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton? It’s about 800 pages so maybe a little heavy for you even in paperback but it is a great read. I second Brick Lane if you are looking for a London related fiction book.

  • theshubox

    The most recent book I read that I loved was A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Set in India in the 1970s and full of fascinating characters and cultures colliding. Highly recommend!

    Also anything Liane Moriarty (light but well-written and will suck you in!). American Wife or Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. Also liked 1Q84 (Murakami) someone mentioned previously.

    • gretchenrubin

      I JUST read American Wife…thanks for other great suggestions.

  • Elizabeth Stewart Mateja

    I always think it’s fun to find a read appropriate to the destination. Have you read Bill Bryson’s latest, “The Road to Little Dribbling”? Bryson’s love of travel and all things British is contagious, his writing style is like a conversation with a brilliant friend, and the format lends itself to the disjointed nature of reading while traveling. You could also check out his “Notes from a Small Island” or “Home”. Have a wonderful trip!

    • gretchenrubin

      Great ideas! I love Bryson’s writing.

  • Tirzah Shirley

    I’ll give you 3 faves from my years of reading. The first two are non-fiction…Endurance by Alfred Lansing and Swimming to Antarctica by Lynne Cox. The last one is out-of-print, I believe, but so worth searching out. I believe it is available in a Kindle edition…The King’s Cavalier by Samuel Shellabarger, historical fiction. Have fun making your choice!

  • Jennifer Paige

    “Masquerade,” a gorgeously illustrated treasure hunt created by artist Kit Williams, and the follow-up book describing the intricacies of the puzzle, and the sheer joy experienced by those who took up the challenge: “Quest for the Golden Hare” by Bamber Gascoigne. Perhaps you and your daughter could take a side trip to Ampthill to see the cross of Catherine of Aragon while you are in England.

  • gametime2210

    Harry Potter and the Cursed Child comes out July 31. That should keep you engaged.

  • Lisa Y

    Both Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson are wonderful novels. And The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion are fun reads as well. You might also enjoy those two since the characters would fall neatly into your tendencies!

    • gretchenrubin

      I love a few of these, adding the others to my list!

  • Brittany

    The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, a memoir about running the Durch resistance and surviving Ravensbruck. The most hopeful holocaust memoir I’ve read (I’ve read many).

  • Alex

    “The Third Witch” by Rebecca Reisert, is a novel about the witches in Macbeth.

  • Learned Lady

    I second The Secret History. It’s very absorbing. If you like classic mysteries, anything by Josephine Tey or Dorothy Sayers. Harder to find are the “Provincial Lady” books by E.M. Delafield, but they are comic gold and just right for getting in an “English” mood. I’m currently reading and loving Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (but that might be a better read for when you’re in New York!). I’m also eyeing Eric Ives’s The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn.

    • gretchenrubin

      I love several of these books! great suggestions.

  • Thomas Magnum

    The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker. Nonfiction. Fabulous.

  • Elisa

    Several suggestions…
    I know you like young adult books…just finished Pax. What a lovely wonderful book.

    For historical fiction i love all the books by Anchee Min about China. Her memoir is also amazing – she escaped the work camps during Chairman Mao because she was picked from the field to star in propaganda films for China. Eventually escaped to America. Her books are all gripping and fabulous.

    Also reading Molokai a novel about Hawaii during leprosy. I realize that doesn’t sound great but so good!

  • Lara

    The Boys in the Boat

  • If you want a really really wonderful funny novel “A man named Ove” is wonderful. So funny, so heartfelt and a truly wonderful novel!
    A real life funny, and holiday related, and british to get you into our way of thinking… and memoir, that I can’t recommend enough – it’s SOOOOO funny! “The Tent, the bucket and me” by emma kennedy 🙂

  • Ruth Carter

    Try The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

  • Ruth Carter

    Also, War and Peace; I couldn’t put it down when I read it. Any historical novel by Georgette Heyer. They’re generally set in the Regency period and have sparkling heroines. These Old Shades and Cotillion are perhaps my favourites.

    • Talia

      Ooh, I love Georgette Heyer. What a great recommendation. Frederica and A Civil Contract are among my faves.

      • Ruth Carter

        I’ve just picked up Frederica to read whilst eating my lunch!

    • gretchenrubin

      LOVE War and Peace. And I just discovered Heyer – have a read a few, but not these, so thanks for the suggestions.

  • Talia

    Hello from a UK listener/reader! This year is the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Roald Dahl. So why not mark this UK author by reading some of his works on the plane here. Also, as he did both children’s and adult fiction, you’ve got a great body of work to choose from depending on what takes your fancy. I love The Twits, Matilda and The Witches. But I heart his macabre, mysterious, slightly twisted, adult fiction short story collections such as Kiss Kiss and Someone Like You. Happy reading!

    • Oliver Warren

      Don’t forget his childhood memoirs (Boy) and also his young adult memoirs (Going Solo) which is about his time in the RAF in some interesting theatres around the world. They are both very good … witty, interesting and charming … and most of all for your trip, very British!

    • gretchenrubin

      I LOVE ROALD DAHL. Have read all of these many times!

      • Leslie

        There’s a great new bio about him — “Storyteller” — I highly recommend, too!

  • Tanya Price

    I like to sync my travel and books so that I’m reading something set in the area I’m visiting; it helps me to burrow deeper into the place but also means that I am not distracted by reading something that is set in a place other than where I live or am visiting (focus on the now!).

    If you haven’t already read it, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is set mostly in London (albeit in the 1500s) and is absolutely wonderful story telling.

    For something a little lighter and modern, I second the suggestion of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Bill Bryson’s books on Britain, and Alexander McCall Smith’s Corduroy Mansions series.

    • gretchenrubin

      LOVE Wolf Hall.

      Lots of great suggestions.

  • gretchenrubin

    Great suggestions!

  • I would recommend The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom, and if you have already read it, Glory over Everything.

  • eleanor

    Kate Atknison’s “Life after Life” and/or “God in Ruins.” Both wonderful novels and very appropriate for a trip to London.

    • JennyO

      I was about to suggest these as well!

      • Mathew Clark

        Have to say I found God in Ruins a struggle – didn’t particularly find it that ‘gripping’. Haven’t read Life after Life and was disappointed after hearing real great reviews. Obviously just proves how personal book choices are!

  • Carla

    Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis. It would make a little more sense if you had already read the first two, The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog (one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time). But the final two are set in WW II London, and are great reads.

  • amberwitch

    If you are looking at le Carre, I’d recommend Smiley’s People. It’s really remarkably complex and textured. Even better than Tinker, Taylor…

  • Elena Levenson

    Safekeeping by Jessamyn Hope is capital-E Excellent. Compelling, evocative, realistic, full of understanding for each of the fully realized characters that people the book. The novel, set in the 1990s in Israel, follows a young New Yorker and addict who’s trying to come to terms with his grandfather’s death — and goes to Israel to track down his grandfather’s long-lost love.

    Beautifully written… it took me ages to take it back to the library after I’d read it because I didn’t want to let it go. (Now, of course, I’m glad it’s circulating!)

  • Helene

    I’ve just finished first part of Jan Kjærstads trilogi (The Seducer, The Conqueror and The Discoverer). It’s a ficticious biography (ie the person it’s about is not real). It’s a fantastic story!
    Have a great trip to London. Hope you make it to the Warner Bros. Studios to see the Harry Potter-sets. It’s a great experience!!!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ll check these out, sound terrific.

  • Mike Mada

    ‘A Town Like Alice’

  • JennyO

    Nonfiction: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald; My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead; Hold Still: a Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann; The Road to Character by David Brooks; I Was a Child by Bruce Eric Kaplan.
    Fiction: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Seam Greer, Someone by Alice McDermott, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Nail Gaiman, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.

    • Teresa

      I second the Neil Gaiman recommendation. Great adult fairy tale!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ve enjoyed several of these but not all –thanks!

  • Andrea Anez

    I might be too late … but have you ever read Fred Astaire’s memoir “Steps in Time”? It is more chatty than poetical – but this is what makes it authentic. So fascinating to read about his early Vaudeville days … and reflect about his tendency! Haha!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ll have to check it out!

  • Teresa

    I may be too late, but two really interesting biographies that are nice paired together are “Life List” by Olivia Gentile and “The Snake Charmer” by Jamie James. Truly fascinating portraits of complicated, driven people who pursued their respective passions at great personal expense. I’d love to hear your thoughts as to which tendency these two people belonged.

    • gretchenrubin

      I LOVED Life List. The brilliant author is a pal of mine. I’ll check out Snake Charmer.

  • Kelly

    I highly suggest the book Rebecca. A haunting thriller and page turner.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ve been meaning to re-read this book.

  • Elizabeth

    Have you read The Magicians series by Lev Grossman? The books are excellent, and would make a plane trip fly by!

    • gretchenrubin

      I LOVE those books, and Lev Grossman is a friend so that makes them even better. Now a TV show!

  • Ro Duran McBride

    The Railway Man by Eric Lomax

  • Duxmom

    A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Messiner. A gorgeous book- beautifully written, and wonderful story. Thank you for asking the question! Now I have a whole list of great books from this list!!

  • Mathew Clark

    “All The Light We Cannot See” is fantastic imho – along with ‘The Storyteller’ by Jodi Picoult

    “The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disppeared” by Jonas Jonasson or “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman – are two ‘lighter’ reads but genuinely brilliant.

  • Cheryl Miles

    When we flew to Italy in 2010 I devoured The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.

  • Theresa

    Water for Elephants and Orphan Train