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Reading the friendly skies

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Thursday, Sep 4, 2008

Air travel is something of an occupational hazard in my life—partly because of (obviously) my occupation and partly because of my geographically dispersed family.  So I spend a lot of time in airports, my time there equally divided between airport bars and airport bookshops.


I don’t usually buy anything in the bookshops.  $7 is a steep price for a beer, but you can’t very well sneak one in from outside just in case your flight is delayed.  $28 for a paperback is completely avoidable when you can plan your reading needs in advance.  The generally disappointing range of books is another factor.  It’s rare that anything on display catches my attention.


I’m always reminded of the episode of The Simpsons when the airport bookshop is named “Just Crichton and King”.  Although in recent times it’s more “Just Brown and Rowling”, the idea is still the same: sell the most populist, mass-market books you can think of, in big piles.


Australian airports are particularly bad, something that was brought home to me by the excellent range in the Great Canadian Book Company at Vancouver airport last week.  At Canberra airport (a city of 300,000 people and a frequent destination) the poor range is hardly surprising, but larger airports like Sydney and Melbourne don’t have the same excuse.  Even in a major airport, the lack of competition tends to leave shops perpetuating the narrow idea of the “airport novel”.


There’s nothing wrong with a bit of trash, to be fair, and at least page-turners have the virtue of keeping you awake and engaged when on a long flight.  Many is the time I’ve attempted to read something dense and complex only to fail with the combined distractions of turbulence, snoring neighbours and intravenous airline coffee.


I probably would have had better luck with a Michael Crichton than I recently did with Robert Musil’s epochal The Man Without Qualities, a dense, misanthropic exploration of the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Fourteen hours over the Pacific Ocean and I managed a mere five pages before I gave up and watched Prince Caspian on the little TV screen.  The first volume is over 700 pages and I barely made a dent.


This teaches me that picking the right book for a flight is more complex than merely grabbing whatever you’re currently reading.  It’s a special case and deserves careful thought.


Everyone would have their own unique selection criteria.  Do you like to take a couple of books and see what you’re in the mood for?  Do you trust the serendipity of the airport bookshop selection?  Can you even read on a plane or is it just a bad reading environment?


I think next time I’m going for something punchy.  With big print for my sleep-deprived eyes.

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