Desert island books vs. airplane books

Last week I was at a job interview where one of the interviewers asked me, “What three books would you take with you to a desert island?”

I’m afraid I came off rather pretentious and egghead-y when I came up with the following list:

  • Personal History by Katharine Graham
  • Intuition by Allegra Goodman
  • The Private Science of Louis Pasteur by Gerald Geison

He then asked me to pick something “totally non-academic,” whereupon I said (of course) The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.

Of course, I wasn’t happy with my list.  I spent the bus ride home contemplating this question, and I realized two important things.  First, instead of Intuition I should have picked the as-yet-unpublished third book in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kvothe trilogy.*  Second, the “desert island” question will, by its very nature, lead a lot of people to pick egghead-y books.  Desert island books are books you’re going to be re-reading for all eternity.  Books that are long and dense are a natural choice.  But that list doesn’t necessarily give a good idea of what a person reads on a day-to-day basis.

Here’s a different way to ask the three-books question: “If you had to fly to London tomorrow, what three books would you pick to take with you on the airplane?”  Airplane books are a different prospect than desert island books — you’re not being asked which books you would want to re-read over and over again, you’re being asked to pick three that would help you pass the time enjoyably while you’re trapped on an airplane.  That’s a question that gives a much clearer sense of what the person likes to read (and hence their personality, and hence whether you’d want to be trapped with this person in an office for eight hours a day).

Here’s my current airplane list of books that I haven’t read yet, but really want to:

  • Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
  • Freedom by Jonathan Franzen — just so I can see what all the fuss is about

If it had to be three books I’d already read, my list would be:

  • Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom
  • Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

What are your airplane books?  What about your desert island list?


*  I know it’s risky to pick a book that’s not even published as one of my companions for the desert island, but if past performance is an indication of future performance, Rothfuss’s third book is going to be unbelievably good and compulsively re-readable.  And if I’m going to be sent to a desert island I want to be sure I will get to learn how the trilogy ends!


5 comments on “Desert island books vs. airplane books

  1. kc says:

    Good distinction. For the hypothetical desert island I think I’d want to take Rothfuss’s as yet unfinished 3rd book too. Also, the soon to be released Wheel of Time whatever-number-it-is simply because I’ve been waiting a billion years for the damn series to end. I’d have to ponder on the last slot.

    Airplanes are much easier to select for (especially since all of my flights tend to be long ones)! Pre-Kindle, when my carry-ons were limited, I’d usually opt for the following: something in a series (if I’m already invested it’s easier to disappear in to the book), something easy and/or trashy, and something non-fiction.

    Have you started Hunger Games yet?

    • Oddly enough, I’m saving Hunger Games for an upcoming plane flight! 🙂

      How have the latest Wheel of Time books been? I haven’t read one since Knife of Dreams (book 11), which bored me to tears.

      • kc says:

        I initially gave up after Crossroads of Twilight, but started again when I learned that Sanderson was going to be finishing the series. Books 12 & 13 are a vast improvement, mainly because you can finally see the end is near (FINALLY! WOOO!) and things are moving.

  2. Beth says:

    Zen and The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance would be on my desert island list.

    But then again, maybe that’s a bad idea. It always makes me think realllly hard.

  3. M says:

    I find it almost impossible to pick desert island-anything. Too much pressure! Tough interview question, yeesh.

    I’m currently saving *Love in a Cold Climate* by Nancy Mitford for my next airplane ride (whenever that might be). I like my airplane/vacation books to be:

    1) long enough to last at least through the flight length + layover time.

    2) absorbing but not TOO heavy or academic (and while I normally love it when a book can make me cry or burst out laughing, reading Wodehouse and having giggling fits in public might lead to “what’s so funny?” questions from strangers.

    Which leads me to 3) “safe” covers/titles – nothing that will provoke my seatmate to strike up an awkward conversation (i.e. not a good time for *Lolita* or *Lady Chatterley*. Also no embarrassingly-titled self-helpy stuff).

    4) something that fits in my purse easily (this was one of the many problems I had reading *War & Peace* while travelling).

    One of my fav. airplane reads was Jhumpa Lahiri’s *The Namesake*.

    I once thought it’d be kind of amusing to bring Agatha Christie’s *Death in the Clouds* or Erica Jong’s *Fear of Flying* and see how long it took before I got a comment… but I’ve since changed my mind. 😉

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