The consolations of reading on airplanes

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
What is flying good for? Reading, if nothing else

I spent part of last week sitting on airplanes, which means I got a lot of reading done. This is what planes are good for, perhaps the only thing they’re good for — that strapped into a seat, flying south to north or coast to coast, we have, for a few hours anyway, time enough to read.

I’m not a fan of flying; it’s unpleasant, the bovine herding of the TSA line, and it scares me (I’ll admit) to be catapulted through the air. If there is a saving grace, it is that no one can reach you, no one can talk to you, especially if (as I was last week) you are traveling alone.

I know, I know … planes come with Wi-Fi, as I am reminded whenever I get up to stretch my legs. Why would anyone want to use it, though, when the alternative is a kind of blessed distance, a sense of time suspended, or at least interior?

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve defined air travel in terms of reading — to escape, certainly, to remove myself from its anxieties (“Going down the runway,” Don DeLillo writes in his play “The Day Room.” “everyone belted in, assigned letters and numbers. The landscape hurtling past, the temperature regulated. … We sense the presence of death”), but even more as a mechanism of relief.

Relief? Yes, the relief of forgetting where I am by immersing in another landscape, removing myself by retreating into a book. Or no, not retreating, the process is much more active, but rather seeking out an alternative set of surroundings, by which I might regain some connection with myself.

This is what reading does, allows us to engage with the world by removing ourselves from it, and this dichotomy grows heightened every time I board a plane. I choose my reading carefully, looking for books short enough to finish on a single flight and demanding enough that I will have to give myself over to them in full.

Last week, I read Paula Fox’s magnificent “Desperate Characters” on the outbound flight and Andrés Neuman’s equally astonishing “Talking to Ourselves” on the return. Both novels deal with displacement, the unsettling uncertainties of the everyday.

“You’re not in danger,” a character says late in Fox’s book, “… it’s only an incident. Not death. You don’t draw enough lines.” He’s referring to his wife, who has been bitten by a cat and is worried that she may need rabies shots, but the sentiment applies equally to the experience of being in the air.

The irony is that literature encourages us both to draw lines and to obliterate them, to be aware of ourselves as distinct, and also as conjoined, to some extent, with the characters about whom we read. As such, reading on a plane can’t be about escape, not really, for the book, any book, requires that we be present, not removed.

That this is part of the point should go without saying, for removal is the source of my fear. It’s why I resist flying, resist travel — because in the darkest corners of my imagination, it could spell my removal from the planet — and why the books I carry function as a set of talismans, reminders of who I am.

In her 2009 travel memoir “Not Now, Voyager,” Lynne Sharon Schwartz evokes the conundrum with precision: “[W]e haul our histories with us,” she insists, “like carry-on baggage wherever we go.” Yes, like carry-on baggage: reminders, ways of keeping touch with everything we leave behind.

On my trip last week — a quick jaunt, three days — I brought five books. I knew I would not read them all, but I felt grounded by their presence anyway.

Grounded, feet on the ground, the opposite of flying, which, of course, was the whole idea. Sound like a contradiction? No more so than hurtling through the sky in a narrow tube filled with strangers, all of us desperate to fill the time, to remain present, to maintain some contact with ourselves.

Twitter: @davidulin

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