Reading in the Air

Far away is the land of rest
Thousand miles are stretched between
Many a mountain’s stormy crest
Many a desert void of green

–“Lines,” by Emily Bronte

Travel is the cause of much angst, but my husband is more frazzled than I when I travel alone. Mistrustful of flying, he worries that I will not find my flotation device if the plane falls into the ocean (i assure him the plane will stay aloft, and indeed I am optimistic). He also frets that I may leave my meds in a hotel or lose the antique iPad that doubles as an alarm clock since hotels have done away with clocks.

I don’t worry about travel per se. I worry about irunning out of books to read on the plane. In Alison Lurie’s brilliant, comedic novel, Foreign Affairs, a middle-aged English professor boards a flight to England without a book. This novel tops my list of horror reading for Halloween.

I am an expert on essential carry-on reading. It is tempting to pack a giant classic, like Middlemarch, or perhaps Don Quixote, but the avian atmosphere may not be ideal for “serious” reading.. Better to pack two or three small books to suit varied moods.


TINY BOOKS. If you collect miniature books, you can peruse them in line at Customs: they are roughly the size of your passport. Emily Bronte’s poems are available in a tiny Everyman’s Library pocket books edition, with the simple title Bronte, and the book literally fits in my pocket. I also have a minuscule Oxford University Press hardback edition of Chales Lamb’s Essays of Elia and The Last Essays of Elia. Lamb, a charming nineteenth-century essayist, is sometimes pensive, other times whimsical, and always thoughtful. His subjects are various: “New Year’s Eve,””Modern Gallantry,” and “A Dissertation on a Roast Pig.”

NOVELLAS. I am fascinated by the New Directions novella series (Storybook ND), with their attractive, colorful covers and slightly oversized pages. In her brilliant novella, The Road to the City, Natalia Ginzburg’s prose is crisp, pitch-perfect, and witty. The charming, confused narrator, a bored young woman who has nothing to do, is resigned to the prospect of marrying her boyfriend, though she is in love with her cousin. And she secretly wouldn’t mind living like her lazy, quarrelsome, married sister, Azalea. “I nearly always found her in bed, reading novels, or smoking, or phoning her lover, quareling because she was jealous… Then her husband came home and she quarreled with him too.”

COMIC MEMOIR. Ludwig Bemelmans’s comic memoir, To the One I Love Best, set in the 1930s in Hollywood, is the story of Ludwig’s friendship with Elsie De Wolfe, an eccentric decorator and socialite. Bemelsmans was a screenwriter, illustrator, and cartoonist, best kown for the Madeline children’s books, and his observations are lucid and charming . I found it a bit twee, but others love it.

AN OUT-OF-PRINT CLASSIC. Anne Redmon’s brilliant, disturbing novel, Music and Silence, published in 1979, explores the different signifiers between music and silence. Two women, Beatrice, a quiet physician, and Maud, a talented, narcissistic young cellist, live in the same apartment building, and gradually become friends, insofar as either is capable of friendship. Maud’s life proceeds at high pitch and gradually disintegrates into silence after she breaks with her cello teacher. When the music stops, when Maud ceases to play the cello, Beatrice tries to save her from chaos.

AN UNDER-READ CLASSIC. George Orwell’s Coming up for Air is perhaps Orwell’s most astute novel. In this gentle comedy, the narrator, George, a fat, successful, middle-aged insurance salesman, is a hip, brighter version of Babbitt. Aware that England is on the brink of World War II, he anticipates the hell of the after-war period: society changed almost beyond recognition after the First World War. On a trip to his hometown, he is startled by urban sprawl and the demolition of several buildings . So many changes in the course of a few decades. But George remains cheerful and philosophical, despite the inevitable changes wrought by middle age and the future.

BETTER THAN REBECCA. I loved Daphne du Maurier’s The Parasites,  a  novel about a theatrical family. It begins with a dramatic scene: Charles, a country squire, angrily accuses his wife Maria, a famous actress, her brother Niall, a songwriter, and sister Celia, of being “parasites.” They are the children of a famous actor and singer. Are they or are they not parasites on society?  I think this is du Maurier’s best novel, even better than Rebecca.

A MIDWESTERN CLASSIC. Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady is a masterpiece that focuses on the importance of place. The heroine, a vibrant young woman, Marian Forrester, is stuck in a small town in Nebraska after her husband, Colonel Forrester, loses his money. The bank he co-owns has failed, and he felt it was right to reimburse the customers with his own money. Before the failure of the bank, the Forresters summered in Nebraska and wintered in Denver, and Marian is now nearly frenzied with loneliness and lack of society. We see the drama through the eyes of Neal, a boy who loves Marion and then disapproves of her as he grows older and she becomes more desperate.. She claws and fights her way to escape, a bit like a midwestern Scarlett O’Hara. Willa Cather, who grew up in a small town in Nebraska, knew what it was like.

WHAT ARE YOUR VIEWS ON READING ON PLANES? Newspapers, magazines, books?

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