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Airplane Reading

If you’ve ever flown anywhere, you’ll identify with many of the short essays in Airplane Reading, edited by Christopher Schaberg and Mark Yakich. Even if you’ve never flown, it’s still worth reading for sentences like this: “A flying problem is the opposite of a drinking problem: it starts when you lose interest in the free booze.” So writes Ian Bogost in his essay “Frequent Flight.” Bogost is indeed a frequent flyer at more than 200,000 miles in a year. His piece is joined by essays from fellow travelers, including several doctors who take to the sky.

If you’ve ever flown anywhere, you’ll identify with many of the short essays in Airplane Reading, edited by Christopher Schaberg and Mark Yakich. Even if you’ve never flown, it’s still worth reading for sentences like this: “A flying problem is the opposite of a drinking problem: it starts when you lose interest in the free booze.” So writes Ian Bogost in his essay “Frequent Flight.” Bogost is indeed a frequent flyer at more than 200,000 miles in a year. His piece is joined by essays from fellow travelers, including several doctors who take to the sky.

For example, Tarn Wilson reflects on her seatmate in “My Czechoslovakian Plastic Surgeon.” Being 18 at the time, she tried to be polite, but as he makes a move, Wilson “leaned as far as I could into the aisle.” Since then, she’s mastered the art of “The Ignore.” Anya Groner is “The Doctor’s Wife” of her essay’s title. Her husband, exhausted from long shifts, doesn’t stir at first when the call comes for a doctor on board.

But Thomas Gibbs may have the best doctor story, titled “Free Beer.” His quest for another Heineken gets interrupted by a man with heart problems. “He told me he had a nitroglycerin but had never taken it,” writes Gibbs. “‘This would be a good time,’ I said.” He tops it off with a surprise ending.

Though Gibbs doesn’t get his free beer, Anne Gisleson does in “The Great Privilege” and transports us to the exotic experience. She embarks on a Malaysia Airlines flight in 2012. “[ . . . ] a stewardess, in all her formal, floral exuberance, came down the aisles bearing a tray of free beer, Singha, Tiger, Sapporo, Asahi, which immediately transported us not only to another hemisphere but to another century of more gracious air travel.”

Closer to home, Connie Porter writes in “Flying Au Naturale” that two years before 9/11, she was “happy to be nappy flying frequently.” Still, every time she passed through security she was “pulled aside for additional screening.” “[ . . . ] maybe it looks to an untrained eye as if we are hiding something in our hair.” She wraps up her essay with this sobering thought: “And now, while the au naturale hair of black women has taken on a new and heightened threat level of its own, who is breezing past them? Unsuspected, unsearched, sleek-haired and dressed to kill.”

I especially like Rebecca Renee Hess’s freethinking take on size in “God, Please Let Me Fit”: “Just because I’m fat does not mean my weight will affect you, seat neighbor, during a three-hour flight. [ . . . ] I just want to see the world.”

Pilots and flight attendants also have their say in Airplane Reading. Delta pilot Jack Saux’s story about the ’70s is “From the Cockpit.” He offers a behind the scenes view, revealing phrases that keep passengers at ease. Among the no-nos: gear unsafe, resolve the problem, and fire trucks. Instead say, “an indication that the nose gear did not function normally,” we will “attempt to resolve the indication,” and “airport vehicles with flashing lights.”

How many of us have spent time in and out of airplane lavatories? Nina Katchadourian, in “Seat Assignment,” is in and out for a different purpose. “I spontaneously put a tissue-paper toilet-seat cover over my head and took a picture in the mirror using my cell phone. The image evoked fifteenth-century Flemish portraiture.” We see the funny photo to prove it, and that began her “ongoing art project made on airplanes, using only my cell phone and the materials I find around me.”

On a more serious note, Alison Kinney’s “Hostages (October 23-24, 1975)” were small children being evacuated from Seoul, Korea, for adoption in America. Kinney was 10 months old, and repeatedly scripts the flight attendant’s words: ‘“She was the best baby on the plane. She didn’t make a peep.’ Of course the flight attendant told my parents that. [ . . . ] She was going to say whatever it took to get rid of that baby.”

Airplane Reading is one of the most original collections of essays I’ve read. Each has a distinctive take on traveling, and even the less riveting narratives offer interesting, sometimes amusing, sometimes serious perspectives. What an entertaining companion for above the clouds or below.

 

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