E-books to get me through a long spell in the woods.
May 1, 2013 8:51 PM   Subscribe

I am leaving for Africa in less than 12 hours. I will be spending the next three months doing fieldwork. I am bringing a Kindle. What reading material should I bring for entertainment? What's gotten you through some long spells away from civilization? Looking for recommendations for books that really make you think.

So I'm taking off for a fieldwork expedition in a few hours and I have a chance to load up my Kindle with some choice e-books before I go. I'm going to be spending a lot of time chilling in the jungle, and would love some reading material -- ideally something a bit out of my normal sci-fi/fantasy groove -- to help entertain me during those inevitable idle moments.

I feel like this will be a good opportunity to read some heavier stuff, since even War and Peace will surely feel like a vacation compared to the intensity of the experience that I am about to embark on. I'm drawing blanks though as far as what might be good to put on my e-reader, so I'm here for suggestions.

Help me out! Don't worry too much about any supposed preferences of mine, just throw out whatever you personally think would be a good book to bring on a long trip.
posted by Scientist to Media & Arts (33 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
The Brothers K, by David James Duncan. The shortest 800+ page book you'll ever read.
posted by themanwho at 8:53 PM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

God, Infinite Jest should take about three months. Other than that, it's not heavy or 'literature' at all, but I'm reading Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach and it is fascinating.
posted by everydayanewday at 8:57 PM on May 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Mating by Norman Rush is exactly the book you want. First of all, it's amazing. Next, it's about expats in Botswana. It's pretty amazing to read while you are overseas.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:15 PM on May 1, 2013

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. It's huge, weighty both literally and figuratively. Mann himself recommended that you reread it as soon as you finish it - I myself wasn't up for it once I finished, but I could totally see his point and think that re-reading like that would be quite valuable.
posted by smoke at 9:20 PM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh also, like, hit up Gutenberg. Middlemarch is fantastic. I'm forever recommended Germinal here and elsewhere. If you're feeling ambitious, tackle some Henry James; lots of sustenenance there.

Dickens has no sustenance but remains shockingly readable.
posted by smoke at 9:22 PM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Many good suggestions, but I would suggest

The Ego Tunnel (Thomas Metzinger)


all of the books by John Swartzwelder on Amazon ("How I Conquered Your Planet").
posted by rr at 9:30 PM on May 1, 2013

Response by poster: Gutenbergable suggestions are especially welcome.
posted by Scientist at 9:30 PM on May 1, 2013

I would also suggest Henry James - maybe The American.
posted by Red Desk at 9:40 PM on May 1, 2013

I brought a bunch of Haruki Murakami books on one of my last trips. IQ84 is a nice thing to read in chunks, but I wouldn't start with it if I was new to Murakami.

Have fun doing fieldwork! I am so jealous.
posted by topoisomerase at 9:42 PM on May 1, 2013

I tried to include a variety, some public domain/creative commons, others not. All denser than light reading (of varying degrees), but most are quite readable, which should help since fieldwork can be intellectually draining:

Fiction: Nonfiction:
posted by thebestsophist at 10:35 PM on May 1, 2013

Steven Erikson - The 10 volume Malazan series.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:44 PM on May 1, 2013

Steven Erikson - The 10 volume Malazan series.

Op is looking for something outside their fantasy/sci fi groove. The books are huge, I'll grant you that.
posted by smoke at 11:15 PM on May 1, 2013

Oooh, how about some of the foundational essayists/memoirists/biographers??

Looking at Project Gutenberg I see
- Michel de Montaigne
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Frederick Douglass
- Boswell's Life of Johnson
- Alexis de Tocqueville
- William Hazlitt

Dudes only alas, but hopefully writing that will spark your own urge to write while you are out in the field. Keep poetic journals along with your research notes!
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:50 PM on May 1, 2013

Guns, Germs and Steel
Goedel, Escher, Bach
100 Years of Solitude
The Omnivore's Dilemma

Are all books that require some commitment to get through, but are worth doing so. Says I, at any rate.
posted by solotoro at 12:32 AM on May 2, 2013

you might try some books that feature being away from civilization.

on the road and darhma bums by jack Kerouac

a wake in the woods by bill Bryson

Walden by Henry Thoreau
posted by jander03 at 12:37 AM on May 2, 2013

Things on my Kindle that I both enjoyed reading and appreciated having in eBook format:
Ulysses, James Joyce
What It Takes: The Way to the White House, Richard Ben Cramer
Gallipoli, Peter Hart
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer

Things I'd want if I were traveling abroad:
seconding The Magic Mountain - for some reason, this is such a good travel read
any Paul Theroux nonfiction
a novel set in or near wherever you feel is "home," in case of homesickness?
The Wild Swans at Coole, WB Yeats
The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett

If you're going to be doing really intense work, don't underestimate the appeal of some nice light reading. I'd bring plenty of stuff I know I'd like, because after a rough day I don't always feel like reading something heavy or different from my usual.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 12:45 AM on May 2, 2013

Books that have helped me through long trips:
- All of Mary Roach's books
- All of Alison Weir's books (if you're into British history)
- Crime and Punishment
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
- Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates by Tom Robbins
- Anathem and Reamde by Neal Stephenson
- The City & The City by China Miéville (not as grim as his Bas-Lag novels)
- The Broom of the System and Oblivion by David Foster Wallace (both are much shorter than Infinite Jest)
posted by neushoorn at 12:49 AM on May 2, 2013

No no no no! At least not ONLY Teh Serious Reading! I did that for my most isolated fieldtrip, and it turned out that I just couldn't handle serious heavy literature or non-fiction in my time off. The fieldwork itself was so mentally and psychologically exhausting that I needed light entertainment to switch off with at the end of the day. And I didn't have any!

I was forced to resort to pulling, one by one, crumpled individual pages from Catherine Cookson novels out of the walls that they had been used to insulate, reading them out of order, and then returning them to the wall cavity.

Don't be like me.
posted by lollusc at 1:24 AM on May 2, 2013 [10 favorites]

Yeah, make sure to pack both heavy lifting and light entertainment. There's nothing worse than wanting a snack at night, and having cupboards filled with nothing but flaxseed and tofu, not a potato chip in sight. In this vein, Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson did a great job of keeping me entertained for a long flight. Gone Girl was also a riveting quick read.

I always like to read books that are set in the place I am, especially histories/non-fiction. It provides more perspective and always has some resonance with what I'm doing. I can vouch for exactly none of these (except Heart of Darkness), but Gutenberg has an "Africa" subject page. In the same vein, perhaps Origin of the Species and/or Darwin's journal? Not where you are physically, but where you are with respect to contributing to humanity.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 1:35 AM on May 2, 2013

Mark Twain's books and essays are perfect for this, also George Orwell. All of which is public domain.

Good luck with the Field Work!
posted by Blasdelb at 2:24 AM on May 2, 2013

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies (books I and II of a trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, both Man Booker prize winners, and very absorbing!).
posted by taz at 3:15 AM on May 2, 2013

"The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver
"Columbine" by Dave Cullen
posted by backwards guitar at 3:23 AM on May 2, 2013


I got a lot of mileage out of the classics on Amazon. Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Three Musketeers (you can get it free in French, too - Les Trois Mousquetieres), A Tale of Two Cities. I read the first couple of Tarzan of the Apes books, too, and The Princess of Mars. All of the Anne of Green Gables books, Little Women, Count of Monte Cristo, lots of Mark Twain (I especially enjoyed Life on the Mississippi).

Books I spent money on and would highly recommend:
Annals of the Former World - you'll never look at North American rocks the same way
Song of the Dodo - all about Island Biogeography and conservation. Probably my favorite science book

Definitely don't only bring serious books. I brought Infinite Jest on my first trip and I just didn't have the mental fortitude after a day of fieldwork to handle it. I was reduced to reading the Sookie Stackhouse books that someone had left previously.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:40 AM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thought-provoking: The Dispossessed, by Ursula LeGuin
Escapist: Vanishing Act by Thomas Perry (the start of an addictive series)
posted by acm at 6:21 AM on May 2, 2013

While in the Peace Corps, I read and especially enjoyed:

One Hundred Years of Solitude
The Poisonwood Bible
Cloud Atlas

They felt relevant to the experience, and weren't so heavy that reading them felt like a chore. (I'm seconding those people saying you should bring some lighter fare as well.)

I'd also recommend bringing some books about the place you're visiting. Like for South Africa, I read Mandela's memoir.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:10 AM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Infinite Jest

Unless they've changed it recently, the Kindle edition of this fucks up the footnotes so badly that it's basically unreadable.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 7:48 AM on May 2, 2013

Go to MoileRead and download the complete Harvard Classics:

The Kindle store also has an omnibus edition of the complete Harvard Classics shelf of fiction for less than $2. It has over 200 works!

posted by JoannaC at 8:12 AM on May 2, 2013

I'm sorry that I sound like a broken record on here sometimes, but Gaudy Night is my all-time favorite book, and it's long and astoundingly complex and thought-provoking while still being a fun read. It's not so much a mystery novel as it is a subtle study of intellectual honesty and academia and early feminism and love. It's here as a free pdf, but I've never had too much luck with pdfs on my kindle; it's also available on the kindle store.
posted by you're a kitty! at 9:24 AM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past spring to mind.

And yeah, the Infinite Jest e-book mangles the footnotes. Don't bother with it.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:50 AM on May 2, 2013

From Gutenberg, Jerome K. Jerome's "Three men in a boat." Especially if you will be camping.
posted by fings at 2:41 PM on May 2, 2013

The Selfish Gene will take a while to get through just because there will be so many times you look up from the book and think for a while.

Seconding Paul Theroux, specifically Dark Star Safari.
posted by theuninvitedguest at 3:30 PM on May 2, 2013

I agree that heavy reading is hard after heavy field work. I recommend The manuscript found in Saragossa.

"Alphonse, a young Walloon officer, is travelling to join his regiment in Madrid in 1739. But he soon finds himself mysteriously detained at a highway inn in the strange and varied company of thieves, brigands, cabbalists, noblemen, coquettes and gypsies, whose stories he records over sixty-six days. The resulting manuscript is discovered some forty years later in a sealed casket, from which tales of characters transformed through disguise, magic and illusion, of honour and cowardice, of hauntings and seductions, leap forth to create a vibrant polyphony of human voices. Jan Potocki (1761-1812) used a range of literary styles - gothic, picaresque, adventure, pastoral, erotica - in his novel of stories-within-stories, which, like the Decameron and Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, provides entertainment on an epic scale."
posted by dhruva at 3:57 PM on May 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding Three Men in a Boat, which is very funny and surprisingly not dated in many ways.
posted by wittgenstein at 2:15 AM on May 5, 2013

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