WHAT, you might ask, is Anna Karenina doing on the same summer reading list as The Little Engine That Could?
Let me explain.
Back in December, when we worked on the year-end 2013 Best Books Concierge, one of the things we enjoyed most was finding common threads in very different books (just look at the unlikely titles that live together under the "Funny Stuff" category, or the "Family Matters" category). And that's how we ended up settling on this year's Book Your Trip project — a series that is much more about the journey than the destination, and aims to create a surprising, serendipitous book discovery experience for the summer months.
In March, the NPR Books team — Petra Mayer, Nicole Cohen, Rose Friedman and myself — reached out to our trusted reviewers, librarians and Arts Desk colleagues and asked them to brainstorm books that featured themes or memorable scenes of transportation and transit. As usual, they wrote back with hundreds of titles — both old and new. We spent the next month or so sorting those books — recommended by Lynn Neary, Michele Norris, Nancy Pearl, Maureen Corrigan, Neda Ulaby and many more. (You can hear Petra talk more about that process with Linda Wertheimer in the audio at the top of this page.)
There were some pretty straightforward categories — train, plane, bike, boat ... but it didn't take long for things to get squirrelly. Do LSD trips count? (Yes!) Can we call "time" a mode of transit, or do we have to say time machine? (Eh. Still not sure. We couldn't agree.) Do the dogs and cat who travel by paw in The Incredible Journey qualify for the "by foot" list? (Sure, why not!) What do we do with James and the Giant Peach? (Create a big "miscellaneous" list, obviously.)
It wasn't always pretty, but eventually we settled on 12 lists: train, plane, car, bike, boat, foot, city transit, horse, balloon, rocketship, time and a miscellaneous category that includes drugs, dragons and giant peaches. (A moment of silence here for a fun list called "Connections" that included books featuring multiple modes of transit — like Nellie Bly's Around the World in Seventy-Two Days. Things were just getting too unwieldy, and it didn't make the cut.)
Speaking of things that didn't make the cut: These lists are not comprehensive. They aren't even a little comprehensive. Months before we pressed publish, we were bracing ourselves for the inevitable: NPR, HOW DARE YOU PUBLISH A LIST OF HORSE BOOKS AND NOT INCLUDE [INSERT NAME OF FAVORITE HORSE BOOK HERE] — I'LL NEVER DONATE ANOTHER DIME!!
Honestly, these lists could have gone on forever. We had to stop somewhere. So please don't stop supporting your local member station because Misty of Chincoteague didn't make it. (If you must know: It's because we decided it was about horses, but not horses as a mode of transit). We tried to select an idiosyncratic mix of old and new, known and unknown, and books for new and experienced readers alike. The point is book discovery, so we didn't always pick obvious books; we hope browsing this series feels like wandering into an unfamiliar section of the library.
Our favorite thing about these lists is the surprising and funny combinations you get when you decide to look at a very specific slice of something. We love that Anna Karenina and The Little Engine That Could are side by side. On the car list, you'll find Go, Dog. Go! and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And — perhaps for the first time ever — Che Guevara and Beverly Cleary are hanging out together with The Motorcycle Diaries and The Mouse and the Motorcycle.
Is this a useful way to organize books? We're not really sure. But it was a fun and interesting exercise, and it made us all add a bunch of new titles to our own reading lists. We hope you'll find some books that are new to you as well. Stay tuned in the coming months — our friends on the Arts Desk will be bringing you Book Your Trip stories on-air. (Bob Mondello has had us tapping our toes to transit-themed show tunes for weeks.)
And of course, outrage aside, we really would like to hear about the books that you would add to the lists. So please share your favorites with us in the comments section of the lists, or tweet them with the hashtag #bookyourtrip.
As always, we know you have a choice when you listen, so we'd like to thank you for choosing NPR Airwaves. You are now free to move about the cabin.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Whether your summer plans involve hopping a train, jetting to parts unknown or toddling to the backyard with a cold beverage, NPR Books has your summer reading covered. Book Your Trip is a virtual travel agent featuring every kind of literary journey imaginable. NPR Books editor Petra Mayer stopped by to tell us more.
PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: Hi.
WERTHEIMER: How exactly does Book Your Trip work?
MAYER: Well, you might remember our brook concierge from last year, this is a more traditional kind of list. It lives on our website. We called out to all our reviewers and we asked them what are your favorite books from any era that featured trains or planes or weirder stuff like dragons and time machines, anything as long as it featured some mode of travel. And the result is this really cool book discovery tool. It is a list, but it's definitely not NPR's 100 best travel books ever - it's much more idiosyncratic. Our only criteria were that each book feature some kind of mode of travel and that it be really, really good.
WERTHEIMER: So how did you decide on categories?
MAYER: We were focused on the idea that people go on vacation in the summer and at first we were thinking, you know, maybe the categories would be like beach or mountain or city. And then we thought it's really not the destination, it's how you get there.
WERTHEIMER: What kind of books made the cut?
MAYER: All kinds of things. You know, the lists are like car, horse, balloon, plane, dragon, time machine. On the train list we have "The Little Engine That Could" and "Anna Karenina' because, you know, they both have trains right...
MAYER: ...There you go.
WERTHEIMER: So did you make any amazing discoveries?
MAYER: I did, actually. We were trying to fill out the hot air balloon list, and I was just casting around and I came across this book called "The Ice Balloon." This particular balloon was hydrogen and not hot air, but it's the story of a Swedish explorer in 1897 who thought it would be a great, easy idea to take a hydrogen balloon and sail to the North Pole and back. He was planning that it was going to take six days and he was going to go in comfort and Victorian splendor in this beautifully outfitted balloon and he was going to plop down on the other side of the pole and he was going to be a hero and it sure didn't turn out like that. So, Linda, I have a question for you - do you have a favorite travel book?
WERTHEIMER: I do read books in which people travel like - Lee Child has written a series of books about a man named Jack Reacher.
MAYER: Oh, I know. I know you're a Lee Child fan.
WERTHEIMER: He's a thriller writer and this guy doesn't have a home so he travels all around mostly hitchhiking.
MAYER: I'm sorry to say we don't have any Lee Child on the list, but we do have an honorable mentions category, we could add him there. We'd actually like to invite listeners to send their own honorable mentions in. You can go to the list and add them in the comments or you can tweet them to us with the hashtag #bookyourtrip. We've actually also got some radio stories coming up. We're going to hear from Eric Deggans, he's doing a piece on a great book called "The Watsons Go To Birmingham - 1963," which is about to be a TV movie.
WERTHEIMER: OK, Petra. Happy summer reading.
MAYER: Well, thank you very much.
WERTHEIMER: Petra Mayer is an editor at NPR Books. And you can start planning your journey at NPR.org/bookyourtrip. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.