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Q & A – Books to Make A Bad Commute Better
By Kathryn Pritchett
September 16, 2022

Rumor has it we’ve headed back to school and back to work. Even if you’re barely easing back into the outer world, the Paper Lantern Writers have you covered with suggestions for engaging reads to help make the most of your travel time.

Wherever you’re off to, Ana Brazil reminds you to Stay Alert and consider audiobooks or alternate modes of travel.

I commuted to downtown San Francisco via BART for decades, and my primary commute-time reading suggestion is this: Audio Books.

I’m not trying to be funny; I’m just trying to keep everyone and their stuff safe. BART is so packed with people during commute hours that it’s easy to get your pocket picked, your handbag heisted, and your laptop lifted. So instead of keeping your nose in a book (whether you’re sitting or standing) I suggest keeping your eyes on the crowd and your buds in your ears.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I have never listened to an audio book on BART, so I don’t know who to recommend. I often listened to music on my San Francisco commute. On my way in to work I’d listen to oldies-with-driving-beats-to-keep-me-awake, like ZZ Top, the Allman Brothers, and the Temptations. Returning home I’d listen to something smoother like Lyle Lovett, Mollie Tuttle, or Allan Toussaint.

While commuting to San Francisco on BART can be an unruly ride, the Oakland ferry is a whole other story. The ferry is not crowded. The crew and passengers are serene and civilized. You can always get a seat. And during the evening commute, they even have a bar.

The ferry is not a bad commute (in fact, it can be downright mystical), but can be made better with books like these: The Great Gatsby (because like the parties in this story, wafting along the waters of the San Francisco bay is the ultimate indulgence); Annie Leibovitz’s  Pilgrimage (a glorious book of historical things and places; but only if you don’t mind carrying a book as large as your laptop); and lastly, how about a cook book, even if it makes you hungry for lunch or dinner? For food pleasure on the ferry, I’d recommend Bay Area chef and food lover Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking. 

Edie Cay recommends short stories no matter how long your commute.

When I ride public transit, even when I’m infinitely familiar with it, I have this anxiety in the back of my mind that I will miss my stop. So for me, reading short stories is the way to have an effective commute. I can read a story, check my surroundings, make sure I know where I am, and then dive into the next one. Subscriptions to literary magazines are great for this–always new authors! new stories! One of my favorite places is One Story, which is exactly that: One Story. They come in little quarter page booklets, and only one. Easy and light to slip in a bag or a purse to have wherever you go. And since there is only one story, you know it’s going to be good.

If you have a longer commute, try Black Warrior Review based out of University of Alabama, and is the longest running graduate student published magazine in the country. The aesthetic is, in my opinion, pretty meaty. Strong literature, strong stories.

If that isn’t your bag, try Alaska Quarterly Review (disclaimer: I did read for their slush pile when I was a graduate student there) (https://aqreview.org/). The Alaska aesthetic is there: a little sparse prose at times, but quirky in its own way.

Literary magazines are always grateful for a subscription, so you know your money is going to people who appreciate it, and you’ll be introduced to writers you might not find when perusing your bookstore’s shelves. Its a win-win-win, and you’ll still get to your destination.

Rebecca D’Harlingue fancies books that take you far, far away from your daily commute.

I’ve never really had a job that I could get to on public transit, so I couldn’t really read on my way to work. Still, there are plenty of times when I want to get my head out of the present and completely immerse myself in another world.

Although I don’t read much fantasy, I’ve always loved books about the Arthurian legend. After all, I even married a man named Arthur. In junior year of high school, we read The Once and Future King by T. H. White, which I loved. When my kids were young, reading The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley carried me away. It tells the story through the eyes of the women, particularly Arthur’s sister, Morgaine. As you can imagine, it is a completely different take on the story, but one that is just as mesmerizing and poignant as any of the sagas.


More recently, I found myself transported by Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist. It takes place in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, the same setting as an upcoming work of mine. There are details that put you firmly in the world of the characters, and there is a mysterious miniaturist, who seems almost able to predict the future. There is love and sacrifice and secrets that lead to fatal consequences. It’s one of those books that when you raise your head from reading, for a moment you wonder where you are.

As for me, Kathryn, I’m a fan of big blockbusters that keep you thoroughly distracted. (I should always travel with Ana by my side to watch out for potential danger!)

One of my first jobs out of college was managing a medical building on the far side of Golden Gate Park. My husband was in law school across the Bay at U.C. Berkeley and we lived in an apartment not far from campus. That meant I commuted an hour and a half each way which meant I read A LOT of books. My favorites were big sagas like M. M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions and James Clavell’s Shogun. These doorstopper novels helped me escape the tedium and tight quarters of a long BART/Muni ride.

Now, if I’m “commuting” anywhere I’m usually behind the wheel so I listen to books rather than read them. I generally prefer non-fiction in an audiobook, but I just finished a great piece of historical fiction, Brian Hill’s  I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company: A Novel of Lewis & Clark.  Listening to Hill’s beautiful writing did what those other books did earlier—transported me to a place of wonder. This time, not that far from home.

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Kathryn Pritchett

Written by Kathryn Pritchett

Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.

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