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The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight Review by Bobby Schweizer Christopher Schaberg
New York: Continuum, 2012
$100/Hardcover, $24.95/Paperback (forthcoming)

It is only recently that I've flown with any regularity. Trips for work and pleasure have supplemented my old typical twice-annual flights to visit my family. But my fascination with airports is long standing. It is most likely attributable to growing up close to Washington Dulles International Airport outside of D.C., a structure that was built in 1962 in what was then the farmlands of Virginia and is now the middle of suburban sprawl. It has an interesting architecture, what airport historian Alastair Gordon calls a "jet-age interpretation of classicism" that followed "jet-baroque" (206). Eero Saarinen's design envisioned a single building standing in the middle of a field, freed from the grotesque network of buildings most major airports had grown into. Its dramatic concave roof stretched 600 feet along its glass exterior and was (and still is, though now doubled in length) visible in totality on approach from the road. It's concept of the mobile lounge—"a cross between a bus an a waiting room"—was intended to bring passengers directly from the terminal to the plane (Gordon, 206). In reality, Saarinen's plans were subverted by the realities of growth and the mobile lounge became used as a ferry between terminals. Throughout its buildings bold block lettering signaled the forthcoming age of computers which would no doubt revolutionize air travel and eventually deliver the promise of space travel. Dulles airport could just as easily be a spaceport. And, after years of construction and renovation, its new glass and steel security area and AeroTrain intra-concourse station recall this distant vow.

Washington Dulles International Airport AeroTrain
Photo Credits: Flickr user thisisbossi

In The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight, Christopher Schaberg explores how an interpretation of the space of air travel such as mine emerges. While most accounts of the culture of air takes to the sky in planes and travel, The Textual Life of Airports remains grounded, taxiing the reader through a world of ticketing counters and Sbarros. It's a book about departure areas, newsstands, security screening, mass-market paperbacks, music, literature, travelers both real and fictional, traversal, and staying put. Schaberg, who teaches at Loyola University New Orleans, exhumes the space of travel Marc Auge had relegated to "non-place" (structures designed to be passed through with which which we do not forge a mental connection) by establishing its concrete identity as depicted through Hardy Boys stories, news reports, personal tales of being an employee of Gallatin Field Airport in Bozeman, Montana, the 9/11 Commission Report, the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Don DeLillo, airport art and official signage.

Schaberg's immediate goal is to draw out the legible qualities of airports, both in terms of its spatio-cultural interpretation and also its telling in other media. It is the airport as a text and the texts in which airports appear. His interweaving of these two approaches is a rhetorical move that entangles the processes of Roland Barthes' notion of air travel's "elimination of speed" into what Schaberg terms "an ecology in waiting" (106). (It is worth noting at this point that I read the book while waiting for and while on a recent flight.) What kind of thing is it that exists when its assumed that it is merely the lead-up to the supposedly more significant event of progression?

He answers using a series of vignettes. What I expected when starting the book—which is likely how I would have written such a work—was a trip through the airport from ticketing agent to gate agent. Instead, it opens with a bookstore and closes with yoga. Reaching the final chapter of the book is not analogous to the goal of catching a plane, but more like being able to wander about the airport like Alain de Botton's A Week at the Airport spent in Heathrow (2010). Schaberg's organization is a conscious move that separates the process of enabling air travel from its many components and the result has its advantages and disadvantages.

This deliberate structure benefits his emphasis on the airport's discrete qualities at the expense of a book that lacks organization. In some cases, the structure leads to surprising juxtapositions between chapters. The Hardy Boys' novels, which touch on acts of terrorism, segue into the 9/11 commission report and then into issues of security screening. But this momentum is interrupted when the book changes course from examples about the airport back to the airport itself. "Airport Studies" and "Ecology in Waiting," which are right in the middle of the book, seem as if they should be at the beginning and the end. "Airport Studies" feels like a second introduction and "Ecology in Waiting" the critical conclusion. And yet somehow it works. It's unfamiliar, but feels appropriate given the subject. Waiting at the airport is sandwiched between the rush to get to the gate and the first boarding call, so of course "Ecology in Waiting" should be in the middle.

Schaberg is a sharp writer. It is apparent that he comes from a background in literature and cultural studies, as the example-description-analysis format comprises most of the book. For example, he considers an advertisement for seatback televisions on Qantas flights featuring two comfortable, well-dressed travelers. "Such airline campaigns for personal screens, embraced ever more widely, suggest a confused baseline of desired communication and happy solipsism inherent in flight, and the priority of the visual collapsed into an airborne host of bodily comportments and sensations"(81). His interpretations are never far-reaching, though I found them to be only as evocative as the example chosen.

The strongest examples are those explicitly about airports. The typical airport newsstand Simply Books evokes a discussion of the kind of low-impact writing known as airplane reading. It is where mass-market paperbacks thrive because readers can at once be fully absorbed in its effortless text or distracted by their surroundings without losing their place in the story. A news story shared on YouTube about a final good-bye embrace turned security fiasco addresses the fluctuating border of danger and the airport panopticon. And the technology of seeing and recording is invoked through a public art piece in Sacremento International Airport in which a carpet patterned as aerial photos of the Sacramento River connects the terminal and the parking garage. Other compelling examples include the face of Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg's The Terminal, the 9/11 Commission Report, and the Hardy Boys' terrorist encounter. The weakest are the bits and pieces extracted from larger works that touch on, but are not about airports. This sort of analysis is necessary—not everything with a subject is about a subject—but with a wealth of material to draw from that is more explicitly related to the topic.

With emerging scholarship like this, I find that a greater variety of examples is more illustrative than a focus on a single source. Schaberg does this quite well, moving between media about airports and the airport as a medium. There was one source returned to repeatedly, however, that I found a bit distracting. I take a certain amount of blame for my literary ignorance, but being unfamiliar with novelist and playwright Don DeLillo's work, I found the scattering of examples drawn from this single author perhaps too pervasive. Glancing at the index, the five DeLillo works appear on over twenty-five pages of the book. My assumption is that Schaberg had studied DeLillo's work extensively before or while conceiving of The Textual Life of Airports and so they seemed a natural fit. The relevance of these examples is inarguable, but a whole chapter could have been dedicated to contextualize the DeLillo's body of work in relation to airports.

The 9/11 Commission report would have benefited from closer examination in the "9/11: Points of Departure" chapter. What emerges from Schaberg's reading is fascinating and the scant three page mention of this document left me wanting more. The opening paragraphs of the report begin with literary prose rarely seen in government documents, which Schaberg attributes to an almost necessary irony that contrasts the everyday with tragedy. This fascinating observation begs for more exploration.

The most unique chapter was "Bird Citing," which Schaberg describes as an example of "eccentric airport studies" that "expose the ecological mesh that human flight is a part of" (117). As a slang term for airplane, "bird" both naturalizes and de-naturalizes a process we take for granted. Bird imagery is present in the architecture of Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal at JFK, the logo for Homeland Security, airport artwork, and the SR-71. The chapter serves as a reminder that despite over a hundred years of human flight, the aerial perspective that technology has enabled to see is still called a "birds-eye-view." I hope these sorts of eccentric studies are taken up by others, as they reveal the depth of the airport as a text.

The Textual Life of Airports is an important work because it considers a complex phenomenon as being readable at varying scales. Unlike Alastair Gordon's Naked Airport, which is a cultural history, Schaberg's work is a cultural present. It considers the minutiae of signage as equally important as the grand form of the building. And, through analysis of media depictions, it reflects on how we interpret the airport. The book's shortcoming is its lack of clear organization, but for the first foray into the topic this can be overlooked. Currently Schaberg (Twitter: @airplanereading) is working on a follow-up entitled The End of Airports and also co-wrote a clever little book called Checking In/Checking Out with airplanereading.org co-curator Mark Yakich. While The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight is currently out of casual reading price range in hardback it will be affordably released soon in paperback. Then it too can be enjoyed by scholars and frequent flyers as a bit of high-impact airplane reading. In the meantime, I recommend his essay on airport lounge seating.

References

  • de Botton, Alain. A Week at the Airport. New York: Vintage Books, 2010.
  • Gordon, Alastair. Naked Airport. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004.
  • Schaberg, Christopher. The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight. New York: Continuum, 2012.
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