Airplane Mode

by Martin Schauss

In 2012, I read David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King in a oner, flying from Calgary to Frankfurt. It’s that book – not Infinite Jest, which I’ve never finished – that I draw on to justify my admiration of Wallace to myself, whatever the moral and literary baggage. But would I have read Wallace’s pages and pages on taxes and the IRS, on boredom and boring office work, with the same concentration and what some call ‘avidity,’ if I hadn’t sat, solo, in the same seat for nine-plus hours, with nothing breaking my attention except the slices of pumpernickel and Emmental that Condor used to serve back then?

The act of flying and the act of reading form a unique couple, for me, for lots of people. ‘Reading in the utopia of airplanes is quite total,’ writes the poet Lisa Robertson. I can’t think of many other situations in which, under no particular pressure to finish, I can read a long book without looking up. Phone off, laptop stowed away, nowhere to go, and, especially if you’ve got an aisle seat, nowhere to look, really. In-flight movies exacerbate, rather than soothe, my airborne anxiety, the rom-coms, the minuscule, low-res quality, the poor sound from faulty headphones, so my screen stays off.

The confinement of the aircraft cabin couldn’t be more different from lockdown at home. If the pandemic has proven anything, it’s that being stuck inside only amplifies the cacophony of distraction for many of us. The sense of being restricted, a perceived drop in possibilities, means we often look even harder for things to do, and in turn struggle to concentrate on any single one of them.

How much in-flight reading will we do in the future? ‘Do not resuscitate,’ urged George Monbiot this summer, amid mass redundancies and state aid packages worth billions. Is it so hard to imagine air travel as a luxury? If I can’t form a clear picture, if I can’t have faith in our governments’ priorities, it’s not beyond me to imagine a world without reading on planes. A world without air travel culture.

I’m not eulogising ‘airport literature’ – whatever dominates the book charts of the poorly stocked airport WHSmith; the glossy copy of Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel that I bought but never read. Rather, as soon as I imagine the scaling down of air travel, I remember how writers – and filmmakers – are obsessed with flying, and airports, and strangers meeting on planes, and presidents discussing foreign affairs on planes, and snakes on planes, and airport family reunions, and lovers catching up with their beloved in airport lounges to prevent them from boarding (lovers are always the last to board, because they’re filled with hope), and lovers failing to catch up, staring in disbelief at the stewards as the music plays on. Are these tropes of the past? How long would Kevin have been home alone if the McCallisters had planned a road trip to Niagara Falls instead of flying to Paris?

Then there’s the other, disastrous side. Explosions, crashes, hijackings, passengers taken hostage, planes turned into weapons. Will the post-9/11 disaster imagination move on and find a new object for its anxieties? For what it’s worth, the patriotic, testosterone-driven nostalgia for dogfights will likely stick around, but then I’m not sure there’s much of a connection between Dunkirk or Top Gun and the close to one million flights that took off and landed at O’Hare International last year.

In itself, the idea that there’ll be less air travel ‘culture’ if there’s less air travel is vapid. And the argument that air travel has significantly shaped, directly and indirectly, modern cultural production is just as self-evident. But I like dwelling on what will disappear, or change, if we play the hand we’re dealt and reduce our carbon footprint that way.

The French anthropologist Marc Augé called airports ‘non-places,’ places governed by contractual obligations (we follow a strict set of rules), but containing nothing resembling an organic society. No sense of identity is allowed to germinate here. ‘Non-places’ merely exist, in transit we wait. The airport lounge tries to mine our waiting for profit, transforming into a marketplace that offers something for everyone. But airport lounges can never quite hide their main purpose: waiting, killing time. And we know, from writers like Samuel Beckett, that waiting is the stuff of literature.

Olga Tokarczuk’s Booker International-winning Flights revolves so much around flying, waiting in air lounges, staying at airport hotels, there’s a sense that the book equates the experience of air travel with the structures of modern life itself. Some chapters take us on long, eventful journeys, while others are so short it’s like they never got off the ground. The dead end of a cancelled flight.

In a memorable episode, the nomadic narrator listens to an academic panel taking place in an airport. Scholars give short lectures on travel psychology while there is a constant shift in audience, which is made up of listeners and non-listeners, travellers who come and go, looking for a place to wait. ‘Constellation, not sequencing, carries truth,’ one scholar explains, as if describing the book we’re reading, and we recognise the resemblance between the experience of the flyer and that of the reader.

Giving yourself over completely to reading is possible on the plane, and in the ‘non-place’ of the airport lounge, not simply because you have time to kill, or because there are fewer distractions. It’s possible also because of the anonymity of air travel, the invisibility that it entails. The reader shares this sense of anonymity and invisibility with the traveller. The submission to someone else’s rules, someone else’s control, the willingness to be led, the openness to receive.

Like flying, reading can mean a temporary renunciation of self. A joyful, somewhat terrifying vulnerability. ‘We were strapped into our seats,’ Rachel Cusk writes, describing the ritual of the in-flight safety demonstration in her novel Outline, ‘a field of strangers, in a silence like the silence of a congregation while the liturgy is read.’

This anonymity, this invisibility is also a privilege. Racial profiling and surveillance mean not every traveller can feel unseen. Who may loiter, read, unmolested? And in what language, and in which script? ‘What is this “stuckness” inside racial hierarchies,’ Claudia Rankine asks in Just Us, ‘that refuses the neutrality of the skies?’

Airlines ‘have painstakingly reimagined the spaces they control and which then control us,’ the film critic A.S. Hamrah writes. They provide a ‘content environment,’ which we inhabit. Even a gradual cutback in air travel would drastically reorganise this environment, its content, our consumption and imagination, would spark a new brand of nostalgia. Is it too optimistic to envisage a ripple effect? Tom Hanks hanging around JFK for months in Terminal; little doe-eyed Sam outrunning airport security in Love Actually; these would be relics from another time, once-potent tonics readymade for the cultural consumption of the past. Few would lament the end of the in-flight movie. I for my part would be looking for a new reading utopia.