Short Reads For Long Flights

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Mick Jagger, flying in style

There are people who cannot fall asleep on airplanes. I know, for a fact, that I am one of them. Once, in an attempt to force myself to fall asleep during a marathon flight from London, England to Los Angeles, CA, I stayed awake for most of the night before. I erroneously assumed my body would easily slide into a peaceful slumber during my flight, and I would happy arise 8 time zones earlier feeling refreshed. Instead, I remained deliriously awake and painfully aware that I was in a tin can thousands of feet above the ocean.

We sleepless, in order to not go insane from the seemingly shrinking leg room and our snoring companion, will need something to do. The mistake you may be inclined to make is to bring one long book. Unless you’re a professional speed-reader or book reviewer, it can be difficult to finish an entire book in one go, even on your 13 hour SYD to SFO flight. The unfinished copy of Infinite Jest infinitely mocking you will only compound your sense of failure at not being able to fall asleep, so instead opt for something you know you can actually finish. After all, big things can come in small packages.

If you bring one, even two, shorter books that you can complete in one sitting you’ll feel at least somewhat successful. Here are several crucial short novels (all under 300 pages, most under 200) that everyone should read. 


The Classic Novella

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Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and The Sea, 1952

I know, I know. Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea is one of those books that every guy you’ve ever met has probably told you to read, but it’s also very good. At its core, it’s about an aging fisherman attempting to reel in a big fish, but it’s also about much more than that. Hemingway’s prose is famously (or infamously) simple, and at 127 pages, this book is one you could probably knock out in the time it takes to actually take-off.

Page Count: 127

The Still-Terrifying Scary Story

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Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, 1818

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus is widely cited as one of the forerunners to the science fiction and horror genres. You may have read it in high school, but it’s still worth another go. While it’s easy to interpret it as a simple story about a scary monster, Shelley brilliantly illustrates many of the most disturbing intuitions of human nature and explores what happens when a man plays god.  And, to think Shelley wrote it when she was a teenager.

Page Count: 273

The Gripping LGBT Romance

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James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room, 1956

James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is one of those novels that makes the reader wonder “how is this not yet a movie?” Baldwin is heralded as one of the most brilliant writers on American race relations, but Giovanni’s Room entirely takes place in Paris and focuses on a budding romance between two men. The increasingly complicating circumstances that proceed, coupled with Baldwin’s incredible writing, makes it a hard one to put down. The slim novel is among his more accessible works, and serves as a good introduction to one of the greatest prose writers of the 20th century.

Page Count: 159

The Political Spy Thriller

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Graham Greene, The Quiet American, 1955

Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American is an unflinchingly critical look at American involvement in Vietnam. The events occur during the French war in Vietnam, and Greene takes American foreign policy to task for its ignorance of the consequences of its involvement. The book centers on naivete, and the difficult choices a person eventually has to make. It’s a great read for fans of moral ambiguity and political commentary, but it’s also a perfect for people who love a good spy story. 

Page Count: 188

The Experimental Historical Novel

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Jesse Browner, The Uncertain Hour, 2007 (Image: Amazon)

Jesse Browner’s inventive and well-written 2007 novel The Uncertain Hour is set in the Roman empire, and takes place over the course of the final evening of Petronius’ life. The events depicted are real — Petronius (believed to be the author of Satyricon) was sentenced to death by Emperor Nero for treason. Known as the “Arbiter of Elegance” Petronius fittingly threw one amazing party before his death. Over the course of the evening, however, his past starts to catch up to him. 

Page Count: 224 


For more books, read our list of our favorite coffee table books.