Air travel is a mess. Settling into a good book can make the flight smoother


I am masked and tied, this time in a middle seat. Surely the only creature more miserable than me right now is a nearby support dog, a pitbull, who dutifully ducked under his human’s seat. At least this flight takes off, unlike my previous one which was abruptly cancelled.

After two pandemic years of mostly staying put, I’ve been flying a lot this summer, sometimes for work, sometimes to visit family and friends. The flights, all full, were endurance tests across the country, deprived of space and food; but being vacuum-packed in a possible airborne COVID container doesn’t do much for the appetite, anyway.

We all go through the ordeal in our own way: I’ve noticed that my fellow travelers are usually glued to dystopian doomsday disaster movies where humans fight aliens or robots. Who am I to judge? Now I’ve realized that all I want to read when I’m locked in a cramped space is a thriller. What some consider “airplane books”, I consider oxygen masks for the mind.

On my first flight across the country in May, I took along some literary novels. The flight took off, I started reading, and no book lived up to its promise. Because I just don’t like reading on screens, I was trapped and miserable for over five hours. But something wonderful happened when I reached my destination in California. I walked into the local library to find a restroom and near the cash desk was a wall of used books for sale.

I picked up holy trinity thrillers by Lisa Scottoline, Daniel Silva, and Michael Connelly. Some I had read but had half forgotten; others were new to me. I was transported, literally and figuratively, on the flight home. Recently in Oregon, I found a similar deliverance at a second-hand mall bookstore filled with historical and domestic suspense by lesser-known writers like Lauren Belfer, Geoffrey Household, and Celia Fremlin.

I get lost in these kinds of novels for all the obvious reasons; but given today’s extra-tense, extra-claustrophobic flying conditions, there’s perhaps an added appeal to reading thriller stories where the protagonists usually get stuck in awkward places. Take Connelly’s 1998 indie thriller, blood work, where a retired FBI agent is stranded in a marina on his late father’s broken down fishing boat. Set up by a serial killer, the agent must above all remain seated and think about how to outsmart his opponent.

Or, there’s Household’s 1939 novel, Thug male, in which a failed assassin of Hitler hides from his pursuers in a burrow about “two feet in diameter” he dug into a hill. Perhaps, like my traveling companions with their apocalyptic disaster films, I find solace in adventure stories that reflect and intensify my own motionless misery in the air.

The view is different from the cockpit, however – so says Mark Vanhoenacker in his new book, imagine a city. Part memoir, part travelogue, part history, imagine a city is all bewitching. Vanhoenacker is a commercial pilot and writer whose previous book, Skyfaringwas a bestseller.

In imagine a city, Vanhoenacker describes his temporary encounters with many cities around the world – Brasilia, Los Angeles, Delhi – interspersed with landings in Pittsfield, Mass., where he grew up and came to terms with his gay identity. Vanhoenacker’s voice is so contemplative that it holds together the disparate parts of this strange book. Here, for example, he talks about the unique experience long-haul pilots and crew have of cities:

After landing, we have the opportunity to repeat or deepen a set of urban experiences unlike anyone else. Our sojourns in cities—in so many cities! — are generally short but frequent; neatly arranged around our legal responsibility for rest, but also freedom and time bending…

I could not have read imagine a city on one of my recent flights; I would have been too resentful. But on the ground, Vanhoenacker’s bountiful view is a reminder of just how extraordinary the whole mess of air travel still is.

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