Southwest Airlines opens unwelcome chapter: Writers on a plane

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
Author Eric Greitens read from his new book on a recent Southwest airlines flight

Just when you thought flying couldn’t get any more unpleasant comes this unwelcome bit of information: Southwest Airlines is introducing public readings in the air. According to Slate, an author named Eric Greitens, head of the veterans nonprofit organization The Mission Continues, read and answered questions about his new book “Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life” last week on a Southwest flight from St. Louis to Washington, D.C.

This is not the first time Southwest has presented pop-up entertainment to its passengers; the airline’s “Live at 35” series has featured in-air performances by Imagine Dragons, Better Than Ezra and the Plain White T’s.

But a reading? What fresh hell is this? I don’t know about you, but I can think of only a few things I’d less rather do than sit in my seat at 35,000 feet listening to an author read aloud.

Don’t get me wrong: A good reading is a rare and wondrous thing. Over the years, I’ve seen my share: Terry Southern, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Wanda Coleman, Luis Alfaro, Eileen Myles. There’s a reason we are drawn to them — the lure of oral storytelling (which is, of course, where literature begins) and also some lingering echo of our childhood bedtime rituals. I was read to as a kid, and I, in turn, read to my children, or listened as my wife read, the whole experience a kind of collective bonding over the power of voice and narrative.

An airplane, though, is not the place for collective bonding — except, perhaps, over the shared desire to remain, safely, in the air. When I’m on a plane, all I want is to be left alone, to sit quietly, self-contained, to lose myself in a book or in my own thoughts, to get it over with. I feel trapped enough already, hurtling through the sky in a metal tube at 600 miles per hour. Add a reading to the mix, and I begin to have an existential crisis on my hands.

That would probably be the case even were the reading a strong one, but the sad reality is that readings almost always leave something to be desired. This is their dirty little not-so-secret: that most writers are not performers, as much as they might wish they were.

There are few things I enjoy less than watching an author mumble through a set of pages, or hearing the stentorian rhythms of what a friend calls “poet voice.” At least in a bookstore or a bar, I can always find a way to distract myself. But what do I do if I’m on a plane?

To be fair, I don’t know if Greitens is a vivid reader or not; I wasn’t on the flight. For me, however, that’s only one of the issues at play. More to the point is the notion that any audience must be a captive audience, that everything is now a promotional opportunity. What happened to personal space, to minding one’s own business, to our ability — no, our right — to choose?

There are plenty of ways for us to listen to an author, should we want to … but please, Southwest: not on a plane.

twitter: @davidulin

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