My book The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight is now out in paperback, beautifully rebranded under the Bloomsbury imprint, and there have been some nice reviews to coincide with the release of the new affordable edition. In a few cases, readers have sent me photos of the book being read at the airport—minor instances of mise en abyme that invariably make my day.
Nathan Martin, savvy book guru in New Orleans who runs a literary blog called Room 220, made the insightful comment in his review that, “By the end of the book, although it was very clear that airports fascinate Schaberg, it remained ambiguous to me whether he likes them.” This key ambiguity both propels the momentum of the book and perhaps makes it a bit slippery from time to time. My strong ambivalence concerning airports is now driving a follow up study that I’m tentatively calling “The End of Airports”—this might be a cautionary tale or a celebration, I’m not yet sure.
Another reader, in preparation for her own travel adventures, read my book in tandem with Alain de Botton's much more pithy title A Week at the Airport (a book that I in turn take up in one of my chapters). This reader estimated The Textual Life of Airports “A noble exercise, but his thesis is a bit confused, and by the end of the book I still wasn't quite sure what he was trying to get at.” I can commiserate with this reader: even as I was writing the book I myself was not always sure what I was getting at—so I’ll be the first to admit that the book can feel non-thetic at times.
Yet there are indeed small arguments that inflect and build on one another throughout the book, accumulating in the weird jumble that I call the “textual life of airports.” I recently reviewed an excellent book by the geographer Peter Adey called Aerial Life: Spaces, Mobilities, Affects—and as you can see from the title, Adey takes up the ‘life’ of air travel in his own fascinating ways, making his book a great companion text to mine. But back to the reading pilgrim in the previous paragraph, I love that someone sought my book as a way to prepare to inhabit airports, and I hope that some of my confusions sink in and gain purchase as she continues to find herself in odd airport spaces. I imagine everyday travelers picking up my book at airport bookstores, even as this might mean spreading confusion concerning airports—spawning a host of puzzled travelers, as it were.
In fact, an alternative title for my book could have been “Airport Confusions.” It’s a book about how airports confuse their subjects, and about how confusing it can be to really think about airports. In a very plain way, airports are confused spaces, neither totally here nor decidedly there, but always somewhere in between.
And confusion can be a good thing—I tell this to my students all the time. We have plenty of places to turn for quick and easy answers; just ask Siri to define “airport” to sidestep the rugged path of confusion.
As for me, I think it’s a false choice, and that the seemingly direct route leads us right back to the labyrinthine concourses of the ordinary airport, resplendent with all those feelings, actions, and sensations that continue to boggle our minds, lose our bags, and grope our bodies. I’m more confused about airports than ever, and I rather like it this way. It’s a strange feeling to have written a book about something and then to feel like I have fewer certain things to say about the topic than before I set out. But it keeps me thinking, reading, writing, and, curious as ever, wandering around actual airports.
You can follow Christopher Schaberg on twitter at @airplanereading