What happened to the airport novel?
These provocative, jam-packed books were full of intrigue, just enough to pass the hours of a flight (with maybe a few small bottles from the beverage cart). Bearing titles written in bright, raised type, the covers of these mainstream paperbacks featured images of long-stemmed roses, champagne flutes, and sometimes stilettos (shoe or dagger, depending on the plot).
The fate of these once ubiquitous books concerned me as I passed through a few airports last week. I didn’t see any, so I took to Twitter, asking people what makes a book read in an airport and if they have any favorites.
“The term reminds me of legal thrillers – early Grisham stuff, or Da Vinci Code, or Scott Turow,” wrote Maret Orliss, associate editor of the Los Angeles Times Op-Ed, who programmed the Festival of Books for many years and was also a bookseller.
“These are authors of renowned thrillers, great business books, self-help books (based on bestsellers), celebrity memoirs and great fiction titles”, writes Kathleen Schmidt. “Basically, an airport book is a bestseller, past or present.”
My own idea of what the books were was a bit fuzzy, thinking of books like Arthur Hailey’s “Airport” – it must be one, right? – or the novels of Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins. (If he’s not a writer of airport novels, Robbins is at least honorary reading on the beach, as he’s named in Squeeze’s ode to the seaside, “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell )”)).
I needed more help, so I asked book expert, author, librarian, and rated action figure Nancy Pearl for her take on airport novels.
“I think the way we usually think of airplane books or airplane reads or airport novels is a novel that immediately grabs you and doesn’t even let you look up. So this trip across the country goes by so quickly, because you’re so engrossed in the book,” Pearl said in a phone interview.
Pearl, who received a 2021 lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation, says these books were often looked down upon.
“They have a kind of bad reputation among scholars, because they are plot-oriented. Because that’s what’s going to catch you,” she said. “You can’t let go because you want to see what happens next.”
Pearl suggested a few books that did just that: Helen Giltrow’s “The Distance” — which I immediately requested from the library — and Richard K. Morgan’s “Altered Carbon,” which became a Netflix series a while ago. a few years. (I would also add the book literally on a plane from last summer’s “Falling” by TJ Newman.)
“I think, actually, any book can be an airplane book,” she says. “For me, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré was the kind of book I couldn’t put down. It was so interesting, but I don’t think it’s the kind of book when you tend to think of airplane readings.
Maybe asking what happened to the airport novel is the wrong question. Because a lot has changed at the airport over the past decades, from the range of security measures to the cost of checking in a bag or changing a seat. (Those old jokes about bad airplane food seem weird now that a lot of flights don’t even serve meals anymore.)
There is also a wider range of books to read at many airports now. I first picked up Pete Dexter’s excellent “Deadwood” at the Denver airport several years ago and loved it. Last week a small store at the Burbank airport had a small but impressive selection of horror titles (although I was quite terrified of the cost of a bottle of water and a bag of Chex Mix ).
Plus, let’s be honest: streaming and screen opportunities are now hard to beat. On my recent flight, I saw people engrossed in online puzzles, an action movie, and a Korean TV show right in the seats around me.
And me? I was reading a book.
(PS As you can imagine, Nancy Pearl is an utter delight, and so I’ll have more of our extensive book discussion in an upcoming column.)
• • •
Do you have any questions, book suggestions, or airport reads to share as we head into the long weekend? Please send them to [email protected] and they might appear in the column.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Sunyi Dean knows what her debut album “The Book Eaters” would taste like
Sunyi Dean describes herself as an autistic author of fantasy fiction. She was born in the USA, raised in Hong Kong and now lives in the North of England in Yorkshire with her children. She stays active by running, swimming and doing yoga. “The Book Eaters” is her first novel.
Q. Can you tell readers a bit about your novel, “The Book Eaters,” and what inspired it?
“The Book Eaters” is a dark fantasy thriller set in an alternate 90s Britain, centered on a society of people who eat books for sustenance, and the title character is a fierce, morally gray single mother.
There’s a lot more going on, but I’ll avoid spoilers!
Q. In “The Book Eaters”, different books have different tastes; what would your book taste like?
Strangely, I thought about it a lot and decided it would taste like blood and peat. Peat is a rich, dark soil specific to moorland, which gives off a very smoky smell; whiskey is flavored with (among other things).
Q. What are you reading now?
I am currently reading an ARC [advanced readers copy] from Al Hess’ “World Running Down,” a retro-futuristic post-apocalyptic book featuring sentient androids and transtech-salvagers. It’s great fun and has an amazing heart.
Q. Do you remember the first book that marked you?
Cliché, but “The Lord of the Rings” stands tall. I read it early and it left an impression. When I was about 7, my dad started reading “The Fellowship of the Ring” to me in chunks as a bedtime story. I got impatient and “borrowed” the books from him to move on.
Q. Do you have any favorite book covers?
I love retro SFF covers and used to shoot them for Instagram. I know they are cheesy and no longer marketable, but they had charm and color and were an absolute trip to watch. All of Moorcock’s old covers were shiny.
Q. Do you have a favorite book or books?
My favorite book is “Falcon’s Wings” by Cynthia Voigt. It’s a little-known YA fantasy, written in the 90s before YA took off, by an author who doesn’t normally write fantasy. It’s nothing like YA these days – it’s aloof, dreamy, virtually plotless, and very slow-paced. But I think it’s perfect and I’ve re-read it more than any other novel.
Q. What books do you plan or hope to read next?
I hope to read a lot next! Jeff Vandermeer’s fourth Southern Reach novel, RR Virdi’s “The First Binding”, Claire North’s recent releases I’ve fallen behind on, and Oliver Langmead’s “Glitterati”, to name a few -one!
Q. What do you find most appealing in a book: the plot, the language, the cover, a recommendation? Do you have any examples?
The writing style and the voice for me. I usually know within a few paragraphs if I want to continue. Plots come and go; it’s all in the execution of the story itself.
Q. What is in your book that nobody knows?
In “The Book Eaters”, Devon plays a Final Fantasy game that is not yet due for release. Chronologically, the PlayStation 1 and the game it plays were a year or two away from release.
Q. If you could ask your readers anything, what would it be?
Are you happy? If not, why not?
lost in translation
How RF Kuang created the world of “Babel”, his dark historical fantasy novel. READ MORE
A History of the Inland Empire
The life of Annette Chavez Macias inspired her novel about Mexican American cousins. READ MORE
Real life terrors
Money and health issues are the scary stuff, says horror author Gabino Iglesias. READ MORE
The bestsellers of the week
The best-selling books at your local independent bookstores. READ MORE
What’s next on ‘Bookish’
The next free Bookish event will take place on September 16 with Barbie guests Latza Nadeau, Andy Borowitz and Ron Shelton joining host Sandra Tsing Loh.
• • •