6 Books Worth Packing

The second annual BJT Book of Lists—our follow-up to last year’s highly successful feature—won’t be published until June, but I can’t wait to get started. So here, in no particular order, are three novels and three nonfiction works that I’d recommend to anyone looking for books to pack for a trip. 

1. A Death in the Family, by James Agee. Agee is perhaps somewhat better known for his reportage on Southern sharecroppers in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but this novel—which earned him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize—is arguably even more poignant. The story covers only a few days during which an ordinary man on an ordinary errand dies an ordinary death and his family grapples with the ordinary consequences. That’s the entire plot in an anything-but-ordinary book that is much less about a series of events than a series of emotions. Trust me, if you start reading this when your jet takes off, your next encounter with the real world may be when the pilot taps your shoulder to tell you that you landed 10 minutes ago and had better disembark.

2. High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby. A lot of people loved the movie version of this book about a London record-store owner whose girlfriend not only leaves him for another man but also commits the cardinal sin of having a bad album collection. Personally, I found the screen adaption disappointing compared with the novel, which is never less than clever and frequently hysterical. If you’re a romantic who’s also obsessed with popular music, put this at the top of your list.

3. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. Chances are you’ve already read this classic about Depression-era Oklahoma farmers heading out for what they think will be a better life in California. If not—or if you haven’t read it since high school or college—put this book in your suitcase even before you pack your clothes. Steinbeck’s poignant story makes a powerful statement about the good and bad in human beings.

4. Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs, by Dave Barry. Pulitzer Prize-winning humor columnist Barry is always funny, but never more so than here. As with High Fidelity, it helps to be a music fan to fully appreciate the book, but anyone who could make it through these pages without laughing out loud on a regular basis probably needs to go on Prozac.

5. The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vols. 1–4, by Robert Caro. If Caro isn’t the world’s best living biographer (and maybe the best biographer who ever lived), email me right now and tell me who is, because I’d like to read him or her. Caro’s ability to convey both the strengths and weaknesses of his subject—a talent first revealed in The Power Broker, his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of urban planner Robert Moses—is unparalleled. So is his research, which allows him to describe 50-year-old events with the detail you might expect from a particularly observant eyewitness to something that happened yesterday. And his writing is magnificent. Incidentally, the 77-year-old Caro has been working on this riveting series for more than 35 years, and after four fat books, he still hasn’t gotten around to the bulk of Johnson’s presidency. Look for that in the next volume—in another five to 10 years. Meanwhile, these books should be sufficient to keep you in reading matter on your trip, even if you’re headed around the world.

6. Shot in the Heart, by Mikal Gilmore. If ever there was a tale that showed how different siblings can be and how differently they can react to similar environments, it’s this powerful autobiography. Gilmore suffered as horrific a childhood as you could imagine, in a family decimated by mental and physical abuse, alcoholism, adultery and even murder. His brother Gary—the subject of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song—committed a long series of thefts, armed robberies and assaults, starting at age 14, then killed two men in cold blood and became the first person executed in the U.S. after the restoration of the death penalty. And Mikal? He grew up to be not only a superb and widely acclaimed journalist but such a gentle, pensive soul that, after reading this book, I would have trusted him to babysit for my kids.