4 perfect books for a road trip

With the right book for a companion, any car trip can become a vacation.

There are some classics that you can't claim to really know until you've traveled with them.

Normal people prepare for a drive across the country by stocking up on things like tire jacks, extremely large flashlights, and gas cans. People like me spend the time immediately proceeding their departure drafting the perfect reading list – and then, as they're heading out of town, call AAA to make sure their membership is current. So, from me to you, what to read while you uproot your life, when you’re trapped in the car for days on end, or when you’re simply looking for books that will go the distance.

1. There’s no better way to experience Homer’s Odyssey than barreling down interstate 40, behind the wheel of a Priuus, going 80 miles an hour. Just let someone else do the reading, preferably the actor Ian McKellan (with Robert Fagles' translation). McKellan's excellent recitation will remind you exactly why this book’s been a classic for thousands of years (take that, Hemingway!). It is the ultimate adventure story – the all-time greatest quest tale – and utterly perfect when you’re on the road.

2. At Large and At Small by Anne Fadiman (one of the best living writers, period) is one of a very tiny number of books that I go back to time and time again to re-read. This collection of her essays perfectly combines a clear and unemotionally clouded personal voice with a seemingly indefatigable curiosity about the world. Her subjects range from ice cream to Arctic exploration and cover nearly everything else in between – and each is imbued with Fadiman’s clear love of literature, the natural world, and taxonomies of every kind. This is as close to a perfect book as you will ever hope to read. (I am also enamored of her earlier book, Ex Libris, a collection of essays entirely about the act of reading and the world of books.)

3. Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries might not, at first glance, seem like a road trip book, but trust me – it is. Starting on January 1, Slater casually and unfussily chronicles what he cooks and eats for the entire year. The recipes are fantastic (though you won’t be able to do much with them from the road besides fantasize) but it’s the combination of musings and photographs that make this book so unique. "Kitchen Diaries" is the ultimate comfort read – the pages practically emanate the warm, yellow glow of a fire and the sizzle, pop, hiss of something delicious cooking on the stove – all of which you’re going to want when you pull into a Best Western in Arkansas at the end of 11 hours of driving with only fast food and a partially drunk bottle of Snapple for company.

4. Of all the poets in the world, Elizabeth Bishop is the one I love the best. The clarity and directness that she utilizes in her work yields tight gems of poems which are unsettling and disarming. Bishop is a master of the ordinary life: she makes the world seem like it is cracking wide open by breathing structure, sincerity, and wit into the prosaic. There is no one able to capture the permutations of the world better than Bishop and as a result, her Complete Poems is the one of the all-time best uses of the printing press. I’d take this book on the road with me simply because I can’t imagine going anywhere without it.

So, bon voyage, safe home, travel (or, at the very least, read) well.

Rachel Meier blogs about books for the Monitor.

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