Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Airplane Reading

In a few weeks I am taking a short trip. I'm going to a place where I'll have plenty of time to read, and I'm traveling alone, so I'll have time to read on the airplane also. Now I'm starting to get anxious about what books to take with me. Hours of uninterrupted reading time are rare and precious to me. I worry about wasting them on books that are not perfect. The issue for me is not so much what to read when I arrive at my destination, because there will be plenty of opportunities to get books when I'm there. The issue is, which book(s) to take on the plane.

I have discussed this situation with friends who are readers, and they tell me they share my anxiety. Here are the issues: 1) You need a book that you have already started reading, because what if you start reading it on the plane, and find you don't like it? Then you are stuck. In this case you must resort to the backup book (see #5). 2) You must be sufficiently far into this book that you know you like it, but not so far that you might finish it on the plane, and be left with nothing to read (see #5). 3) The book must be long enough that it will keep you occupied for the entire flight but not so long that it is big and heavy and hard to carry. 4) Really funny or really sad books are not good choices because it's embarrassing to laugh aloud or cry on an airplane, though I have done this. 5) Finally, you must have a backup book, just in case your flight is serious delayed and you end up with a lot of extra hours to kill, or in case you find for some reason that you cannot continue with your primary book (see items #1 and 2).

This issue, #5, the backup book, is the one that distinguishes serious readers from more casual readers, I believe. Serious readers carry backup books, and the backup book must be chosen with the same level of care as the primary book. Serious readers do not purchase either their primary or their backup book in the airport bookstore. Serious readers have usually already read all the books that are for sale in airport bookstores, or have at least considered and rejected those books.* Serious readers don't need to go to the airport bookstore, because they are not caught at airports without books; they've been obsessing about what they're going to read on the plane for weeks.One of my proudest moments, as a mother, was when I realized that my son had packed both a primary book, and a backup book in his carry-on bag for a long flight, without my ever having told him to do this. Backup books often become the primary book on the return flight. Thus, serious readers also carry a third book in their checked luggage which will act as a backup book for the return flight. Longer vacations may warrant several books in the checked baggage.

One more issue that concerns some people more than others: the status level of the book you choose. I have a friend who unabashedly reads romance novels on planes; I lack her courage and would only consider one with a sedate cover. I would also hesitate to read something overtly political or controversial because it might make my neighbor try to engage me in conversation, thus distracting me from reading. Since I rarely read anything like that, this is not really an issue for me. And finally, I would never take the latest best-seller; I don't want to LOOK like someone who bought her book at the airport bookstore, even if I didn't buy it there.

*An exception to this is at General Mitchell airport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where you can find one of the best used bookstores I've ever been in.


Jo Harper said...

Do not take Infinate Jest by David Foster Wallace.
This book have been bulging outta my hand luggage for 4 weeks now - it has seen 4 countries and I have only got up to page 230! It is far too bulks, needs a dark room for which to read it it - no disturbing airhostess or weird co-traveller. Plus it's that big I heard one man actually cut it up into 3 parts!

Anonymous said...

Ha Ha Ha. Becky is right that it takes some thought to pick the right book. I recently had to go to my "back-up" book on a plane (a book I had been lugging around for months) and was thrilled that it turned out to be wonderful. The book was The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, a translated Japanese novel. This book has a big reputation as being "literature," which is why I had put it off. How refreshing that it turned out to be interesting.

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