Stephen Lee Naish reviews a book of things to read when flying instead of browsing the Duty Free catalog for hours or buying an Andy McNab novel.
Christopher Schaberg and Mark Yakich, Airplane Reading (Zero Books, 2016) 232pp.
I don’t enjoy flying. The wide range of emotions offered whilst taking off and zipping through the air is a volatile mix of fear, anxiety, dread, boredom, disbelief, and suspicion of every operating system the plane uses. A bump of turbulence ignites my survival instinct that instructs me to grab the nearest object or person and cling to it/them for dear life. When the plane begins its descent a wave of euphoria, hardly felt in my day to day life, cleanses me. I’m released from the funk I’ve been locked in for the past few hours and by the time I’m through customs the ordeal is virtually forgotten. I’ll live to fly again. Oddly enough, what I do enjoy about flying is being in an airport. Glass and concrete Mecca’s of continuous human flow; a conduit of a shared experience that so utterly depends on perspective. There are not many places in the world where so many humans of varied backgrounds, ethnicity, religion, or class convene in one place and do it in peaceful and cooperative terms. Their day to day lives hardly ever untwine; but for a few hours they are united in flight and destination. They may even sit side by side whilst flying and connect with one another. Could the Earth’s socio-political issues be dealt with inside a bustling airport? Well, it’s an idea.
Airplane Reading (Zero Books) is a ‘best of’ collection from various authors “mundane, harrowing, strange” experiences of air travel culled from the website of the same name. Rarely does each of the forty-five essays included exceed the thousand word mark. These stories and experiences are designed as an anecdote to a long layover or a bumpy flight; a quick and effortless read. Airplane Reading‘s editors Christopher Schaberg and Mark Yakich see these essays “as a kind of storytelling that can animate, reflect on, and rejuvenate the experience of flight..” And this is certainly the case. However, depending on where you sit on the flight experience spectrum (I sit firmly on terrified) the majority of Airplane Reading is either a riveting, humorous, and insightful collection of anecdotes or, on the flipside, highly irrelevant personal accounts. For example, frequent flyers will recognize themselves within, and sympathize with, the experiences some of these stories present. Tales of misplaced luggage, diverted flights, nightmare travel companions (including kids), upgrades, downgrades, turbulence, close calls and near misses. In some respects Airplane Reading is the literary version of Jason Reitman’s exhilarating 2009 film, Up in the Air, in which air travel is presented as an art form; an exclusive club of go-getters who thrive on being dropped sleep deprived and fueled on coffee into different time zones. For Reitman’s characters, flying is rarely considered a dull enterprise. Schaberg and Yakich obviously feel the same way.
However, for readers fearful or even bored by the prospect of air travel some of these experiences will feel quaint at best. A causal flyer such as myself is only thankful for the return to solid ground, so the inconvenience of tired kids kicking the back of my seat (this has happened), my suitcase opened and spilling contents all over the luggage carousel (this has happened) or landing in the wrong city due to unforeseen weather occurrences (thankfully never happened, though if you fly enough the chances are that it will) have never really crossed my mind.
There are however stories included within Airplane Reading that are affecting enough no matter your personal stance on flight. Flying opens one up some existential crisis/enlightenment within most people that is hard to tap into at ground level. The experiences that touch upon this, as well as topics of politics, history, economics, and philosophy are more rounded and universally appealing to the casual reader/flyer.
This is not to suggest that unconvinced flyers shouldn’t read books on air travel. Books such as John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay’s Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, Alain de Botton’s A Week at the Airport and Brian Clegg’s Inflight Science: A Guide to the World From Your Airplane are all fascinating and indispensable economical, philosophical, and scientific insights into the air industry and the ways and whys of travel. Airplane Reading is a fine addition to this list and in fact offers a more humanising approach with the reliance on real travellers to spin the yarns. It falls short in places, but mostly Airplane Reading soars.
Stephen Lee Naish‘s writing explores film, politics, and popular culture and the places where they converge. His essays have appeared in numerous journals and periodicals, including Gadfly, The Quietus, Empty Mirror and Scholardarity. He is the author of U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film (Zer0 Books) and the forthcoming Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper (Amsterdam University Press). He lives in Kingston, Ontario with his wife Jamie and their son Hayden.
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