She was on NPR last week offering her thoughts on the perfect in-flight book and she pretty much nailed it.
Here's what Pearl says you need in any book you carry with you on a plane: "You want a book — either fiction or nonfiction — that's complex enough to smother your annoyance when the guy in the row ahead reclines his seat into your lap, but not so intellectually challenging that it demands a dictionary. No plotless wonders with paragraph-length sentences; you need to be able to put the book down when the person sitting by the window needs to step over you to get to the bathroom. "
Then she offers suggestions ranging from "The Arrival" by Shaun Tan (a picture book, but don't be fooled– it's not a children's book) to "The Thin Place" by Kathryn Davis (the story of a few months in the life of a small, rural, New England town.)
Both fine choices. The only thing I'll add, from personal experience, is that the best long flight I ever had was the one during which I devoured Henry James's "Portrait of a Lady." I had somehow missed Isabel Archer all the way through college and graduate school and so I finally decided to pick her up to help me while away hours in transit.
The hours flew and I remember nothing about the flight but – although it's been many years since – my feelings about the book remain indelible . So I guess that's all I'd add to Pearl's comments. She's right – you don't want anything that requires a dictionary. But on the other hand, don't be afraid of the classics. In the case of "Lady" just remember – there's a reason we're still reading her almost 130 years later.