Little books: An airplane reader
I'm not one of the people getting on a plane this holiday season, but the last time I flew I carried along the marvelously designed "Checking In/Checking Out," a book that contains two long-form nonfiction pieces about flying. Read Christopher Schaberg's "Checking In" while holding the book one way; flip it over and read Mark Yakich's "Checking Out."
Independently published by Schaberg and Yakich under the imprint NO Books, "Checking In/Checking Out" serves as a model for a new kind of short-run publication: the little book. About 5 by 6 inches, small enough to tuck into a jacket pocket or a purse, it's easy to carry, doesn't take too long to read, and is quite nice to look at.
And if you carry it on a plane, you don't have to turn it off.
Just being physically convenient would be one thing, but these pieces are well-crafted, engaging reads. Parts of them were previously published in the New York Times, Narrative magazine, the Millions, Brevity and Propeller magazine.
Schaberg tells of working at the airport in Bozeman, Mont. The airport was small enough that his duties included checking in passengers, loading baggage, de-icing planes, cleaning planes, dealing with lavatories and conveyer belts. Pretty much everything. Schaberg writes:
I often thought of loading baggage as a game of human-scale Tetris. Usually each 50-passenger flight that I worked would require two standard size luggage carts full of roller bags, snowboard carriers, ski bags, Pelican cases, octagonal metal film canisters, long plastic fishing rod cylinders, and hard-sided suitcases. Occasionally there would be a kayak, or a casket....
Instead of losing the game when I could not fit a piece in place, usually I just ended up with a badly bruised shin, pinched fingers, crushed toes, or a hard-sided golf case collapsing onto my head as I waited for the next bag to make its way up the belt-loaded conveyor.
On any given day, I would go through this routine several times throughout my shift. After a while, loading baggage didn't feel like a game anymore. It felt like work.
While 9/11 doesn't factor into Yakich's story, fear does. In fact, "Checking Out" is grounded in his intense fear of flying: trying to parse where it comes from, describing it and thinking about accidents.
Because I don't feel comfortable telling people about my fear of flying, I call it "Checking Out" -- as in I got on the plane and just checked out. But "Checking out" refers to twin experiences: the wonderfully strange, zoned-out feeling of actually flying, especially when I'm looking out the plane's window down on the great expanse of Earth, and the persistent thought that the plane is going to crash and I'll soon be checking out with the rest of the passengers in a firey ball of metal and plastic.
This may be a little more than the anxious flier can bear while cruising at 30,000 feet. That was me, and I'd gotten to Yakich's entirely sane account of a Boeing 720 that the Federal Aviation Administration had crashed on purpose back in 1984 when we hit a patch of turbulence bad enough that someone behind me started screaming.
I tried, but I just couldn't read any further. I closed the lovely little book and tucked it into my purse, which I zipped closed and stowed safely under the seat in front of me.
I knew I'd finish it later. On the ground.
Yakich and Schaberg are both professors at Loyola University in New Orleans, teaching poetry and English. They've founded an online journal of stories about flying, airplanereading.org. "We see airplane reading as a kind of storytelling that can animate, reflect on, and rejuvenate the experience of flight," they write. Their book "Checking In/Checking Out" is available for $10 through Amazon.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Image: The covers of "Checking In" and "Checking Out." Credit: NO Books, collage, Carolyn Kellogg / Los Angeles Times