Long-distance travelling is a marvelous thing to do for several reasons: it broadens the mind, builds the character, and so on and so forth; but for someone like me, who cannot drive a car, it is marvelous for another reason, which is that when I begin a long-distance journey I do not have to do a single damn thing for several hours. Whether it is a train, a ferry, a coach, another person’s car, or an airplane that is transporting me, I am not responsible for making it go or directing it in any way. All I have to do is get on the right one, and then my work is done. When I go home to the States for Christmas, this is particularly pleasing because it means that I have an eight-hour flight (eight hours, a full workday) to myself. Other people, I have gathered from furtive observation, spend some of these hours watching films, or talking to each other, or sensibly trying to combat the effects of jet lag through sleep.
You will understand me, I am sure, when I say that packing reading material for eight hours is not a task that ought to be approached lightly. This is partly because I read at an inconveniently high rate of speed. When we were kids, my parents used to take my brother and me to upstate New York to visit family friends who, at the time, lived at West Point. This, too, was a drive of eight hours’ length. I used to bring an entire shopping bag full of books–not just to stow in the boot of the car, but actually into the back seat with me–lest the unthinkable happen and I should finish one thinly-fictionalized retelling of the childhood of a historic European princess before our next rest stop. (These books constituted a large portion of my youthful reading, and also a really embarrassingly large amount of my total knowledge of European history until I was about seventeen.) My point is that I get through books, particularly if there are no distractions. Being sealed in a pressurized metal container is kind of ideal for me in that regard.
Anyway, about three days before any major flight I start to get antsy about airplane reading. The book (I can only really take one on the actual plane) has to be thick, obviously, but not too heavy to be carried comfortably in my shoulder bag. It has to be engaging and very well-written, but preferably not too experimental. At cruising altitude with the very real possibility of a screaming baby, or a dehydration headache, or a personal-space-consuming seat mate, to contend with, you don’t want to be reading something that demands intense focus. (I tried to read Piers Plowman, the thirteenth-century theological dream epic, on a plane once. It was an error of judgment, that’s all I’ll say.) Middlebrow mainstream literary fiction and popular non-fiction tend to work quite well: Margaret Atwood, Kate Atkinson, Bill Bryson and Hans Fallada have all been successful choices. (Actually, the Hans Fallada book, Alone In Berlin, gave me nightmares. It’s about a German couple living in Nazi Berlin and forming their own two-person resistance. It does not end happily.)
At the three-day mark before I left the UK to come home for Christmas this year, I was having some difficulty. I had started a book called Lanark, by the Scottish novelist Alasdair Gray. It’s on the Guardian’s list of the top 1000 novels ever written, and was also, according to the cover copy and Google, widely considered to be the best Scottish novel of the last century. Unfortunately, I wasn’t enjoying it much. After a week (which for me is basically eternity) I hadn’t read more than sixty pages of the thing. The prospect of being trapped on an airplane with no entertainment other than Lanark (on-board films aren’t generally an option for me, partly because I don’t think they’re any good but mostly because I can’t get the little headphones to work) was distressing. But I also felt a kind of stubborn loyalty to the book. It wasn’t totally uninteresting; it was just very, very odd.
So on the day I flew out, I went to Blackwell’s bookshop in the morning. This was a mistake. At the best of times, Blackwell’s is a trap; around Christmas, corporate strategy is to all but put little dangly lights around the place in the manner of anglerfish, in the hopes of luring you into the jaws of consumerism. I mean to say, three for two deals are fickle friends. I bought three books, because I am a fool and a weakling. (If you’re interested, which of course you are, they were: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, and Ghostwritten by David Mitchell.) I boarded the plane with Lanark in my hand luggage and my three back-up options in a Blackwell’s carrier bag.
As so often seems to be the case, my preparations turned out to be entirely unnecessary. I cracked the spine of Lanark before the plane left the runway, and I turned the final page (the five hundred and seventy-third) about half an hour before landing in Washington. This happens more frequently than I would like it to: a book initially unprepossessing suddenly redeems itself and from that point on, finishing it becomes an absolute imperative. I would prefer that either an initially unprepossessing book remained so and I could abandon it without feelings of remorse (this will never happen), or that the book would be prepossessing from the beginning. But very often these days I will begin something which, for the first thirty or sixty or a hundred pages, appears to have only limited merit, but which after that opens up into vistas of innovation or at least of interest. Possibly this is merely the effect of acclimatizing to a very idiosyncratic novel; I couldn’t say.
In any case, I hauled my Blackwell’s books all the way through border control and immigration at Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. (formerly the world’s least congenial transportation hub, now perhaps only the second or third worst on the planet due to the introduction of machines that scan your passport for you. The rest of the world adopted these several years ago, but in the land of the free we don’t like to admit that our systems could be bettered in any way, so things like airport efficiency tend to suffer accordingly.) You may be pleased to know that I finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle last week, so at least it has not been an entirely pointless exercise.
One final observation: airplane books are very much like umbrellas. If you take them, you may not need them, but if you don’t take them, boy will you be sorry. I once got stuck halfway across the Atlantic Ocean with nothing to read but the jacket copy on Selected Letters of John Keats. In the end I gave up and (unable to make the headphones work again) watched the person sitting in front of me watch Despicable Me 2. There are better ways to spend eight hours. Bring enough books, is all I’m saying.