Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The jet set

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Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your favorite pop culture to enjoy on a plane?”

Whenever I end up on an airplane, I find myself torn between two competing impulses. On the one hand, for the next few hours, I’m in a kind of sanctuary, without any of the temptations I find online, in a reasonably comfortable chair with a minimum of distraction—at least back in the days before I was flying with a toddler—so it seems like a good time to catch up on a big, difficult book I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to read for years. This goal isn’t entirely unrealistic: in the past, I’ve gotten through the likes of Gravity’s Rainbow, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and most of Proust while traveling in foreign countries where I didn’t speak the language, and most of that reading took place on planes, trains, and other modes of transportation. On the other hand, there’s SkyMall, and movies on demand, and the seductive line of fat paperbacks at Barbara’s Books. And when you’re halfway across the ocean with thousands of miles between you and your destination, there are times when you want to relax with something less demanding.

In a way, a long airplane ride is a kind of laboratory for the way we read in general. A nourished reading life consists in some proportion of both masterpieces and worthwhile junk, and it’s a sad life that consists only of one or the other. As Robertson Davies once wrote:

Do not suppose, however, that I intend to urge a diet of classics on anybody. I have seen such diets at work. I have known people who have actually read all, or almost all, the guaranteed Hundred Best Books. God save us from reading nothing but the best.

On an airplane, these choices acquire more urgency, or at least they did once. As soon as you’ve selected your book or magazine, you’re stuck with it, and the decision can feel like a less weighty version of the desert island question. You may not have to live with this book forever, but if you’re three hours into a nine-hour flight, it sometimes seems that way. (I’m aware, of course, that with a Kindle and a good menu of inflight entertainment, your choices aren’t quite as limited these days, but I’ve found that my own approach to the question hasn’t changed.)

The Magic Mountain

Most of the time, I find myself splitting the difference, bringing one ambitious read while keeping something more accessible in reserve. On a trip to Hong Kong, I brought The Magic Mountain and James Clavell’s Noble House—the most massive of great trashy novels—and found myself totally enraptured by the former, although the Clavell worked as a nice backup option for my moments of downtime. More recently, while flying to Spain with a nine-month-old in tow, my choices were a couple of John D. MacDonald thrillers and The Little Lisper, the classic introduction to the Lisp programming language. The latter ended up being a particularly good choice, because I could prop it open on the tray table while holding a baby in my arms, working through one exercise at length without having to turn pages more than once every ten minutes. Later this year, I’m flying to Los Angeles for my brother’s wedding, and I’m already reserving a spot in my garment bag for The Death and Life of Great American Cities, along with a trashy novel to be determined later. Maybe Scruples? I’m not sure yet, but that’s part of the fun.

And it’s on an airplane that Pauline Kael’s great dictum—”Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them”—seems the most true. Critics, too, are a captive audience, forced to sit through whatever happens to be coming out that weekend whether they like it or not, so they’re primed to appreciate good trash when it comes their way. On an intercontinental flight or a long bus trip, the difference between a great pageturner (Without Remorse) and a mediocre one (The Plot) is rarely more clear. It’s just you and the book, and your contract with the author is laid out in stark terms. I want the book to excite and entertain me, or at least repay my investment in time with something worthwhile, and if it fails, I’m up a creek. Sometimes, I’ll put it down with resignation and start eyeing the crossword in the inflight magazine. But when it grabs me to the point where I’m surprised that it’s already time to transfer in Atlanta, it feels like a validation, in miniature, of why I read in the first place. Books, like planes, are made to transport us, and a good trip is one in which both get us there in one piece.

Written by nevalalee

May 23, 2014 at 9:39 am

2 Responses

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  1. Your comparison of books and airplanes is true. I often find that the most difficult packing questions are related to books and not clothes, and although my kindle eases this a bit, I still feel I must prepare and have choices downloaded for the flight. Happy reading and flying!

    Karoly G Molina

    May 23, 2014 at 9:46 am

  2. That’s my favorite part of packing, too—I’ll think about the books I want to bring months in advance.


    May 23, 2014 at 4:04 pm

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