There's a lovely article online about reading and travelling. It seems so natural to read while on a journey, and I know I'm not alone in that respect. Go to any airport or dock and you'll see people reading while waiting for their departure. People will usually use books to avoid talking to pesky seatmates on flights as well (done that). And not even an ipod or a laptop takes the place of the quiet regard of a printed page during a trip.
But as the author of the article mentioned, sometimes you have to find the right book. I usually grab whatever is on the top of my to-read pile, and hope they get me through the trip. On long trips to the US, I always end up buying more books during the trip, lugging them home for the pleasure of going through them in my own bed. I've had great reading trips, punctuated by what I was reading, and horrible ones where I tried to bring homework with me and never got to read them (even if they took up too much luggage space and weight).
1. On a ten day trip through southwest China during Chinese New Year (February), I took my copy of A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. Had never read his work before (not that he had a lot of books to his name at the time), but was beginning to dip into the slew of Indian writers making a name for themselves in the early 90's. Travelling solo, with a bulky backpack that occasionally made me feel like a over-laden camel, my book kept me company and saved me from boredom, not to mention very useful when killing insects (ew, yes, but truly a useful tool). I figured that I would read 100 pages per day. In the end, I finished the book earlier than expected because of the pace of the story, and how involved I got with the characters and historical interest (it was the first time I'd read of the instability that took place during the creation of Pakistan and India; plus I began to see how the Hindu and Muslim divisions caused so much chaos at the time, and continues till today). I ended up sharing that book with another friend, who, as luck would have it took it on his trip to Tibet. That book got a lot of mileage.
2. A few years back, my cousin encouraged me to join her on a two week trip to Bukidnon over the Christmas holidays. We would live simply in the village that her foundation helped develop and we'd live off the land. For the first three days we lived in a "dorm" of a house used by the NGO community workers, then moved to the farmhouse of one of the board of trustees. It stood in the middle of a vast field of cockfighting roosters (they would crow at 3 a.m., everyday. Took me three days to sleep properly and not wish murder on every scrawny rooster neck of theirs.). I took 10 mysteries with me, by various authors (I recall that a few of them were by Nancy Atherton); most of them were relatively short (300 pages), and borrowed from another avid reader friend. Biggest mistake was not realizing how quickly I'd go through them. By day 5 I had gone through the lot and was like a drug addict, withdrawal symptoms set in and I spent a lot of times walking through the rooster coops, counting how many had brown feathers, red feathers, black. Good thing we had two trips to Cagayan de Oro, where I bought cookbooks for our xmas and new year dinners; the distraction of figuring out what was viable for the holiday meals took at least 2 days off my boredom. I learned how to make pretty good leche flan, apple sauce, and the secrets to cooking tough chicken (post-cockfight).
3. Once I get into a book, I sometimes figure its not worth sleeping till I finish, like the time I was visiting friends in New Haven. S and G are always good people to visit since I can raid their book piles without impunity. Not having anything decent to read for a couple of days, I was a tad grumpy by the time I flew into the airport, so S gave me Anita Diamant's Red Tent. A good read, with less stereotypical characters than I had expected, and a historical, not to mention Biblical, perspective of women's life in that era. Stayed up all night to read it burning the midnight oil so to speak. At breakfast the next morning S just thrust the rest of her to be read pile in my arms so I could tell her what was worth reading (or tossing against the wall).
I agree with the author that beachside books, thrillers and the bestsellers can be a bit boring and hard to stomach on a trip. I try different genres on trips. My recent interest in scientific non-fiction writing means I have read books about neuropsychology and physics during long haul flights (not as boring as you'd imagine), and I don't always recommend bringing travellogues, as they sometimes make me wish I was flying somewhere else. I sometimes think that a good book that you've enjoyed once before might make for the best travel book; you know the story, but the writing was good before and it probably will keep your fancy for another go. I've re-read many a PGWodehouse on flights. I know I'll arrive in a sunnier mood.
As for my list of desert island books: definitely old War & Peace, Persuasion by Jane Austin (or Pride and Prejudice, but Persuasion is one of my all time faves), one of the Blandings books by PGW, and a book about surviving on a desert island!