The right book for a train ride
December 23, 2009 1:07 AM   Subscribe

What are good books to read on a train?

This holiday, for the first time, I'll be taking the train home instead of flying. I'm relishing the thought of being able to read while traveling (airplanes make me queasy), and I'm looking forward to the forced downtime from the internet and other things that distract me from reading even a fraction of what I used to read.

The journey is about 8 hours long, 16 round trip. It seems the perfect amount to read a smaller novel each way, or a longer one I could split half and half on each leg.

Please give me your recommendations. I'm looking for something more literary (not necessarily part of "the canon," but definitely nothing pulpy or best-sellery), and engaging enough to hold my attention for 8 hours straight. I want the perfect thing to read while staring out into snowy Pennsylvania and listening to the tracks chug by. I think the Mountain Goats are the best music to listen to on these long journeys alone, but I want the literary equivalent of that.

Here is a sparse sampling of the kinds of books I'm looking for:
Calvino, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler
Gaarder, The Solitaire Mystery
Updike, Rabbit, Run
Murakami, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

I'm sensing a theme... maybe the theme of journeys, whether fantastical or mundane, seems to fit the mold for me here.

Recommendations for (simpler) novellas in Russian or Spanish are also welcome, because I could very much stand to brush up on those languages. Bonus points for magically guessing and suggesting books I already own but haven't yet read. Thank you!
posted by timory to Media & Arts (40 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon fits the fantastical/mundane journeys aspect to a tee. Might be one to do over the two legs, though.
posted by my face your at 1:41 AM on December 23, 2009

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
Winter, Manhattan, fantastical and fantastic.
posted by Paris Elk at 2:08 AM on December 23, 2009

If you're okay with literary science fiction, it seemed to me that much of Iain M. Banks' novel Matter is about journeys.
posted by transporter accident amy at 2:20 AM on December 23, 2009

"Sometimes a Great Notion" by Ken Kesey. When you get to the part with the bus journey, you can look out the window and pretend you're Leland! I can't recommend this highly enough!
posted by lucky25 at 2:46 AM on December 23, 2009

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (a Russian classic, not too long and very diverting)
posted by koeselitz at 4:18 AM on December 23, 2009

Books I have read on recent journeys, trains and planes, which have held my interest:

Colum McCann - Let the Great World Spin
J. M. G. Le Clézio - Wandering Star
Roberto Bolaño - The Savage Detectives (lasted me two cross country flights)
Graham Greene - Our Man in Havana
Javier Marías - All Souls
posted by Kattullus at 4:39 AM on December 23, 2009

I have a strong personal association between reading on the train and C.P. Snow's Strangers and Brothers cycle - just because I plowed my way through it one year when I had a very long train commute. Still, I think it works well as train reading and in some sense as a counterpoint to the Mountain Goats - a spare, measured glimpse into a completely different world, in this case mid-century Britain.
posted by yarrow at 4:42 AM on December 23, 2009

Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd, a New Jersey romantic who dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants. Blame the fuku—a curse that has haunted Oscar's family for generations, following them on their epic journey from the Dominican Republic to the United States and back again in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
posted by netbros at 4:52 AM on December 23, 2009

Best answer: I spent a year doing a 3.5 hour (one way) commute by train. I read enough books to justify paying for a $250 alumni library account at my former grad school library.

I will not offer specific books until a bit later this morning when I've had time to think about them in detail, but I will offer you my experience in reading on the train.

Trains are distracting places, and much more so around the holidays. You are likely to be surrounded by noisy difficult people (cell phones, beeping games, music escaping from headphones, loud talkers, seat kickers) although I'll hope for you to find a quiet car with calm people. For this reason, you're going to want something more plot-driven than super literary. Travel literature should also work fairly well. Short stories can also work well.

Bring an extra book. One of your planned books may easily turn out to be not what you're in the mood for. It is miserable to run out of books or to slog through one that just isn't working out.
posted by sciencegeek at 5:10 AM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

For this reason, you're going to want something more plot-driven than super literary.

Like noise canceling headphones
posted by IndigoJones at 5:43 AM on December 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

The Third Policeman - Flann O'Brien
A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
Three Men In A Boat - Jerome K. Jerome
Catch-22 - Joseph Heller
Winterwood - Patrick McCabe
The Little Drummer Girl - John Le Carré
The Club Dumas - Arturo Pérez-Reverte
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:44 AM on December 23, 2009

Riding The Iron Rooster -- Paul Theroux
The Great Train Robbery -- Michael Crichton
The Orient Express -- Agatha Christie
posted by jfwlucy at 6:15 AM on December 23, 2009

Trains are distracting places

True. If you're on Amtrak, find the quiet car, where you'll have a fighting chance at quiet.
posted by yarrow at 6:25 AM on December 23, 2009

Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" - I started and finished it on a 5-hour train trip to Montreal and it blew my mind. The book may well have done that on its own, but the dedicated reading time plus being in constant forward motion really helped.

The abovementioned Winter's Tale by Helprin is a pretty great book as well, especially if you can look out on a snowy landscape. I recall it being a bit too long to read in one sitting though.
posted by Gortuk at 6:34 AM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Silk by Alessandro Baricco is a short read and quite entrancing, has journeys, romance and beautiful writing.
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts is a big fat book, but is a page turner with great human observations, a great story based on his life. I had a great time with it when I was on hols.
posted by honey-barbara at 6:35 AM on December 23, 2009

Seconding Gortuk. I didn't want to get off the train in York because it meant stepping away from a journey that seemed so much more powerful than my own.
posted by jefficator at 7:12 AM on December 23, 2009

'Travels with My Aunt', Graham Greene
'The Razor's Edge', Somerset Maugham
Bruce Chatwin's biography by Nicholas Shakespeare
'The Great Railway Bazaar', Paul Theroux
posted by HandfulOfDust at 7:17 AM on December 23, 2009

Seconding the importance of the quiet car if you can find it, make sure to ask. One of Amtrak's best ideas ever. I fight tooth and nail to find it each time I take the train. A truly civilized way to travel...
posted by midatlanticwanderer at 7:27 AM on December 23, 2009

Have you ever tried books on tape? er... audio books? I love to knit on train while listening to a good book. mp3 players make it easy to bring lots of books with you! It can be harder to find titles that you like, because the selection is often smaller than the regular books (I get mine from the library)

Even if you don't like knitting, the earphones will cut down on distractions. I find it very relaxing to be told a story!
posted by Gor-ella at 7:31 AM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ghostwritten, David Mitchell. A train trip features prominently. It's also an epic, absorbing work.
posted by minervous at 7:34 AM on December 23, 2009

Good one Minervous! That is the perfect book for this trip!
posted by honey-barbara at 7:37 AM on December 23, 2009

Regarding the quiet car, I have found that it can often be more distracting than the regular cars, because there are often folks who come in, not knowing that it's the quiet car, or who think "Oh, I'm not very loud, I'm sure my phone conversation will be fine." The arguments and resulting tension between the "quiet" people and the "not quiet" people stresses me out way more than the normal hubbub of a regular car.

As for what to read, I find that books of short stories are well suited to train (and other) journeys.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:14 AM on December 23, 2009

Required: Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov
posted by mattbucher at 8:15 AM on December 23, 2009

I'll just pipe in that on a recent bus ride, I re-read (for about the 30th time) Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. (The Burgin/O'Connor translation is my favorite.) It was perfectly fitting and always is a great traveling read.
posted by General Malaise at 8:20 AM on December 23, 2009

I have to reccomend a young adult book by Daniel Pinkwater: The Neddiad. It features an epic journey by train, and for my tastes its just the right blend of hilarious, light, and deep thought playfulness for reading while traveling.
posted by cubby at 8:21 AM on December 23, 2009

Not fiction, but chock full of references to fiction and the arts is the literary/philosophical "The Art of Travel" by Alain de Botton. I recently hauled this around with me on several transatlantic flights to help me keep in mind that the journey itself, no matter how tedious and/or frustrating in our "modern" world, often has much to offer apart from whatever the destination is. I think this is especially true for long train trips.
posted by webhund at 8:28 AM on December 23, 2009

Response by poster: Oh my gosh, I'm overwhelmed with amazing answers!

You're all best answers, but if I started marking them, the whole screen would be gray. I marked sciencegeek's because the "bring an extra book" philosophy is how I already operate, and I think it's great general advice for these trips.

For the quiet car suggesters: Yes, I ride Amtrak fairly regularly, so I know what I'm (probably) up against. My hope is that, because I'll be traveling on the 26th and then the 2nd, it won't be nearly as crowded. Also, I always listen to music while I'm reading, so the ambient noise won't bother me over my headphones.

Books you've suggested that I've already read:
Pnin (on a train, actually!)
The Road (and I wasn't a big fan)
The Master and Margarita (my all-time favorite book, and I was lucky enough to read it in the original!)
A Confederacy of Dunces (another favorite)
Dead Souls (also in Russian, Gogol is fantastic)
The Orient Express
Catch 22 (naturally)

For the Audiobook suggesters: Ahhh, I certainly do this. I have listened to many an audiobook on other forms of transportation. I do this because I can't read on most moving vehicles, because of the previously mentioned queasiness. The reason I don't want to do an audiobook this time is precisely because I actually can read books on a train without getting sick, and I really cherish that "real book" feeling of turning the pages and all that other cheesy stuff. Not to mention that I'm a very fast reader, and audiobooks are read aloud at least five times more slowly than I could read the books myself.

Finally, I'd like to pop in with my own suggestion, for others who might be interested -- Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.
posted by timory at 8:48 AM on December 23, 2009

Ok, I'm more or less awake now and ready to come up with a motley list of books for train reading.

Also, since people have brought it up, the quiet car is indeed a thing of wonder. Unfortunately it is subject to the whim of the conductors and is often not available on weekends or holidays. I hope you get lucky and find one. Business class seats are worth it for longer trips for similar reasons. Other common sense travel stuff: trains can range from stiflingly hot to unpleasantly cold. Layers are your friend. So is a hoodie.

Dr. Strange and Mr. Norell
more Murakami since you've enjoyed him in the past
Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon (non-fiction travel)
I'll second the recommendation for David Mitchell, his stuff is absorbing and well crafted.
Garcia-Marquez's magical realism lends itself well to reading for long periods of time but his sometimes confusing naming of characters might not work well for a distracting environment.
The Shakespeare biography of Chatwin is definitely excellent and I'm happy to see someone else loves it too.
Chabon's Kavalier and Clay is about the right consistency but while I really enjoyed it, I've noticed that people who don't like it are pretty vehement.
Microserfs by Coupland
Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz
I recently read short stories by Amy Hempel and they were perfectly faceted bits of excellence.
World War Z was entertaining.
All the King's Men starts out slow but becomes engrossing.
Any of Studs Terkel's books would work well because of their composition. He's an oral historian and the collections of themed oral histories are great and easily read in various sized chunks of time. It may also encourage you to talk to the people on the train with you. Which could end up well - after I read some of his stuff I had a great conversation with a truck driver who was taking the train back after a long run.

Other entertainment on the train:

While I do find This American Life occasionally unbearably smug, it works well for train trips. Lets you listen to something while you look out the window at the passing trees, fences and buildings.

Do you knit?

Catch up on your letter writing. Do you send holiday cards? Do them on the train.

Headphones: yes. If you have the fancy noise blocking ones, I hear that they're awesome. If you don't, still bring some form of ear covering headphone to reduce noise. Earplugs.

If you're feeling especially awesome, bring a cheap box of crayons and a notepad. This can save you from small bored children.
posted by sciencegeek at 9:17 AM on December 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

The upgrade to business class is often only a few bucks and it's entirely worth it.

I'd certain pack David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice. Funny and each chapter is it's own episode. That can work well on the train. Plus, it's a small, light book which won't add a lot of bulk to your bags. It's not in the genre of the novel you'll be taking which will make it a nice refreshing break.
posted by 26.2 at 9:17 AM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

For some reason your list of favorites made me think of Robertson Davies. Have you read him? His works are divided into trilogies -- three short novels are generally sold together as one long book. I would recommend The Deptford Trilogy or The Salterton Trilogy. But you should definitely browse through them at a bookstore or library before you take the plunge.
posted by brina at 9:55 AM on December 23, 2009

I'm delighted to see that Ian McEwan's The Child in Time hasn't yet made the list. It's about journeying in time, among other things.
posted by bearwife at 10:22 AM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Does it have to be a novel?

I think the complete works of T.S. Eliot would be fabulous winter train reading. You can look out on the cold desolate landscape and imagine what it would have been like to be a sensitive person like Eliot, considering the devastation of WWI and wondering whether all beauty was forever gone from the world.

(I have to admit, the earlier person who suggested Maugham's "The Razor's Edge" got me thinking in this vein.)

Back to Eliot:
"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
posted by rhartong at 11:58 AM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Somserset Maugham's, "A Traveler in Romance," has a train element. "The Reivers," by William Faulkner is about an amazing trip in an automobile.

Also, Agatha Christie's ,"The White Horse," is really fun, but specifically a traveling book. The protagonist has just returned from living abroad though.

Preston/Child's "Brimstone," is fast-paced and easy to read, and engrossing if you are new to them. I think it is one of the best in their series. Also, last year in my family we read, "Starvation Lake," since we live in Michigan and love hockey--but the book is good too.
posted by chocolatetiara at 12:24 PM on December 23, 2009

Pale Fire
I, Claudius and Claudius the God
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
The Good Soldier Švejk
Zuleika Dobson
posted by Iridic at 12:59 PM on December 23, 2009

Some more suggestions -- I could not put down Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, and continue to think of it. (I read long it before the movie came out. Good movie, not as good as the book, BTW.) This book also hits on the nail head the idea of journeying in one's own life.

If you like long and complicated books, I think Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain offers an incredible journey through European history and culture. You can't read that in one train trip, though. And because the novel messes with the reader's sense of time, to provide the distorted feeling for time suitable to its sanatorium setting, you may want to wait to be sick in bed to tackle it.

Lastly, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, a very fine book -- much better than the movie -- is most definitely about a journey, albeit on foot.
posted by bearwife at 1:04 PM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

David Haward Bain's Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad or the smaller but not-as-good Nothing Like It In the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 by Stephen Ambrose.

Before 1869 to go from New York to San Francisco you could (1) sail around South America in 6 months at great expense, (2) sail to Panama, go overland there with a 10% chance of dying from yellow fever, or (3) spend a year or more in a wagon overland and deal with Indians, Rocky Mountains, etc. Then, suddenly, you could cross by train in 4 days. The transcontinental railroad was truly an epic engineering feat. I read Ambrose and enjoyed the book immensely.
posted by neuron at 3:35 PM on December 23, 2009

Inspector Imanishi Investigates, by Seicho Matsumoto.
It's a Japanese murder mystery from 1961, in which trains, train stations, and schedules play a central role (along with politics, young turks, hostesses, and the like). I found it particularly well written (and translated), a great window into a bygone era of Japanese culture, and a gripping story.Afterward, you will want to read the rest of his œuvre, but it seems that very little is available in English.
posted by mumkin at 10:48 PM on December 23, 2009

Probably piping up too late here, but - nthing all suggestions for business class and layers (my kid and I both got ferociously sick travelling Amtrak at Christmastime in riffraff class - like, too sick to care about opening presents, and she was five or six at the time. I think it was generally crazyhot in the car we were in, but we were sitting under a vent that was aggressively blowing freezing cold air down the backs of our necks, and I didn't have a scarf/neckgaiter/Michelin Man outfit/umbrella...).

As to books - once I procreated I developed a preference for short stories and nonfiction (in self defense), but an excellent longer read that I never made it all the way through is John Crowley's Little, Big. Good length, a journey, a train station (if I recall), and it's the only book I've ever found that's got a perfect balance between 'I'm really interested in what's happening and enjoying the story' and being so compelling that I skim and rush because I'm desperate to know what happens next. It was delicious.
posted by magdalenstreetladies at 4:50 AM on December 24, 2009

Response by poster: Not leaving until the 26th, and I just confirmed that libraries are open that morning, so more suggestions are always welcome (although I don't necessarily mean that trains should play a role in these books... maybe I was too literal in my question?).
posted by timory at 6:16 AM on December 24, 2009

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. You probably had to read it in high school. It is worth rereading. Ditto Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.
Vikram Chandra's Red Earth and Pouring Rain
John McPhee's Pine Barrens - non-fiction but great, even if you're not from Jersey.
Helen DeWitt's Last Samurai
Michael Lewis' Moneyball - this is non-fiction and about baseball but as a non-sports person I find his writing compelling about a variety of subjects.
Barbara Kingsolver, Poisonwood Bible
Carey's Oscar and Lucinda. Actually almost anything by him is pretty darn great.
Reichl's memoir, Tender at the Bone - about growing up with a dysfunctional family and a love for good food.

Lately, I've been finding things to read using this list. It is worth checking through.

Have a good trip.
posted by sciencegeek at 9:07 AM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

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