Photo: mlakner

Dostoyevsky can transform a dreary train ride into a downward spiral of hopelessness and despair.
1) Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I read Notes from Underground while on my way back via train from a bike trip in northeastern Bohemia. The train ride covered about 100 kilometers, a perfectly bikeable distance, but I had decided that I was feeling lazy, so I bought a cheap train ticket. I had not, however, reckoned with the sheer inefficiency of the Czech train system, which in some cases has dealt with no longer being the Czechoslovakian train system by simply removing the S in the middle of the CSD logo, leaving some awkward kerning and a faded shadowy S in its wake.

(Here I must note that it is in fact possible to take express trains in the Czech Republic, which are fine, but I was riding exclusively “local passenger” trains, which are painfully slow and even more painfully scheduled.) The upshot was that I spent that bright, beautiful early April day waiting in ill-maintained public spaces and reading Dostoyevsky.

For a while, things seem to be getting better, and then it all goes spectacularly to shit.

It’s not much of spoiler to say that Dostoyevsky is not a very happy person. This particular book centers on the inner monologue of a man who hates himself and everyone else. It conveys that monologue in a fantastically realistic way, and it is, in its writing, absolutely brilliant — I can still remember certain (translated) lines — but the book itself is a downward spiral of hopelessness and despair.

For a while, things seem to be getting better, and then it all goes spectacularly to shit. Not exactly the kind of stuff you want to be reading in your third hour of waiting for a train in a sleepy country town.

2) American Pastoral by Phillip Roth

I read American Pastoral this summer paddling in the Yukon. It was given to me by a good friend with impeccable taste in literature and more books than he could hitchhike with. As with Notes from Underground, American Pastoral is undeniably good. Roth won the Pulitzer for it. However, also similarly to Notes from Underground, American Pastoral is undeniably bleak, with Roth’s usual heavy dose of moralizing added on for good measure.

Upstanding businessman’s life embodies the American Dream until his only daughter grows up to be a terrorist and kill people. This was a particularly jarring thing to read in the pristine and desolate Yukon, with only one other person for company and an intimidating amount of headspace time.

3) An Introduction to Ordinary Differential Equations by Coddington et. al.

This is an example of the classic, recurring theme of self-delusion. “Oh, we’re going hiking for a few days? Better take along Coddington’s Intro to ODE’s! I don’t actually have to read it for school, but maybe I’ll lightly peruse it for fun in the evenings.” No! No, I won’t lightly peruse it for fun in the evenings! In the evenings, I will be drinking beers and listening to my friend recount that one time he got drunk with the drummer from the Sheepdogs.

I studied math in university, and this scenario repeated itself a lot — I would go somewhere and bring along some absurdly dense math text, blithely refusing to acknowledge that there is in actuality nothing ordinary about differential equations and to get a decent understanding of how they work and how it all fits together involves concentration, significant chunks of time, and sheafs of scrap paper, none of which are usually readily available when traveling.

To add insult to injury, I was disappointed to find out that the class you take after Ordinary Differential Equations is Partial Differential Equations and not, in fact, Extraordinary Differential Equations.

4) Ulysses by James Joyce

Ulysses is a widely acknowledged masterpiece of twentieth century literature, with each sentence a bit of a love letter to the English language. It is also very, very challenging to read. Once, one of my best friends and I highmindedly decided to read it out loud to each other at bedtime when we were spending a lot of time together. We did not get very far. Invariably, we would either lose the narrative within two pages, or get fascinated by a single sentence and talk about it for a bit, or she would get bored and start doing push-ups (she is now a professional climbing instructor and does not, as of this writing, have any plans to continue reading Ulysses).

Please, by all means, if you’re a better reader than (or have a better attention span than) me, you should read Ulysses. In my case, the above compellingly illustrates why I am still only a third of the way through Ulysses. However, the attempt was far from useless: As a result, my friend (an otherwise absolutely brilliant, English-speaking twenty-year old from Paris) was introduced to the word “scrotum”, which was very funny, and we made jokes about it at dinner parties for a bit afterward.

5) Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

I have nothing against Harry Potter. I quite like the Harry Potter books, actually, and sometimes sneak them into the bathtub against the wishes of my librarian family members. However, here physical dimensions must be taken into consideration. Most widely available in hardcover, this is one hefty book.

In Czech, we have a word for “to have gotten heavy in the process of having been carried.”

I never actually read Harry Potter while traveling, but the recommendation not to do so comes from my friend Allison, a bike racer who decided in her youth to carry it in her pannier on a training ride from Kentucky to Arizona. In Czech, we have a word for “to have gotten heavy in the process of having been carried.” I have no idea why the English language does not have this word, because it would be perfect in this situation.

6) Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

It is with some embarrassment that I confess that one time, I read Twilight from cover to cover. There were mitigating circumstances, including me being in the backcountry and it being the only book around, a strong desire to escape my everyday life at that point (which consisted of a lot of rain and a boss who may or may not be the antichrist), and a certain morbid curiosity as to what all of the hoopla was about.

All of the other books on this list should definitely be read at some point, just maybe not while traveling. Twilight is different. Twilight should not be read at all. I am not the first or the last person to bash Twilight, and for good reason. There was a lot of hackneyed dialogue. There were long, pained descriptions of characters’ eyes. There was weird sexually repressed pro-virginity eroticism.

There was a lot of the protagonist waiting around and sighing for her man, etc, etc. It wasn’t even bad in a good way. Well, whatever, at least it wasn’t Fifty Shades of Gray.

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