Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Panic at the Airport

It finally happened to me. I ran out of books to read while traveling. Typically, when I go on a business trip of more than two days, I take about five books to read with me. If I’m very lucky, I may manage to get through one. My business trips normally consist of days that start at 8:00 a.m. and don’t end until 10:30 p.m., after late-night dinners, and I’m usually a zombie, unable to read my own name, let alone 200 pages of a book by then. In other words, not much time for reading except on the airplane.

As I packed for my trip to San Antonio last week, I thought to myself, “Let’s be smart for a change and only bring one book.” (Someone please come to my house and slap me silly next time I have such very “un-smart” thoughts.) I’d read about 40 pages of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City at that point, thus qualifying it as a book I planned to finish (I give every book 30 pages, and if it hasn’t grabbed me by then, I don’t finish it). But I knew I more than just planned to finish it. I was enjoying it immensely. It seemed like a good choice.

I’m a math editor, though. I can’t look at books without thinking in terms of page numbers and average reading speeds. I quickly deduced that despite my glacially-slow reading pace, even I would be able to read 332 pages well before completing my combined flying time of 8 hours to-and-from Texas. And then there’s all that time in the airport, because I pay attention when the document says, “Make sure you arrive an hour before departure,” tacking on at least half an hour. You learn to do this when you've had some pretty horrific flying experiences in your lifetime. I decided to throw in The Lady and the Panda, because I had about 60 pages of it left to read, and the Aeschylus collection I had was nice and small, so in it went as well.

Well, the first mistake I made was not bothering to find out that traveling to Texas in June is tantamount to traveling to Buffalo in January (I did find out, but not until I was having a discussion with the cabbie, a native Texan, on the way to my hotel, after spending thirteen hours in airports and on airplanes waiting for weather patterns to change). If you’re very, very lucky, you just might board a plane that manages to land during the 2-hour window of opportunity in which massive thunderstorms (and I mean MASSIVE. It’s true everything is bigger in Texas) have subsided before rolling back through again. But we all know, “very, very lucky” I am not. Maybe I’m “very lucky,” because my flight to St. Louis was only delayed about an hour, and we managed to land just as the heavens opened up there, shutting down all departures and arrivals for about an hour, but that’s about as much luck as I’m allowed (and it’s probably meant to last me the rest of the year). At least in St. Louis, this sort of weather seemed to follow a pattern with which I’m familiar, rolling in and out relatively quickly. No such luck in Texas. Thus I sat, long after flights leaving St. Louis had resumed, reading, looking up every so often at the board above my gate to discover my connecting flight was leaving later still.

This is when I realized I’d made a miscalculation in my reading needs for this trip. I’d already managed to read through the four professional magazines I’d brought for the trip, since my flight had been delayed to St. Louis. I’m not one who likes to deal with laptops in airports or on airplanes, so that was it as far as getting work done was concerned. On the flight to St. Louis, I’d begun to read Tales of the City.

After about half an hour of reading this book, I suddenly realized I was reading it at an alarmingly fast rate. It was as though I’d attended some sort of speed-reading class without my knowing it. By the time I’d stepped off the airplane and into the St. Louis airport, I was over halfway through the book.

I began to panic. I put the book away, made my way to my departure gate, and once there, pulled out The Lady and the Panda. I’ve been reading this book very slowly, savoring it, writing notes in the margins, etc. This one would have to take a long time to finish. But then my flight was delayed an hour, and I’d already been reading for an hour. And then my flight was delayed another hour.

Now, you can tell me all you want that being stuck in an airplane with nothing but the fluffy airline magazine and its easy-answers-already-filled-in-by-somebody-else crossword is not the same as being sent to Guantanamo Bay. When I’m sitting at home, surrounded by more books than anyone could possibly read in a lifetime, I will heart-heartedly agree with an “Of course not!” However, strand me in an airport for a few hours, with a 2-hour-long flight ahead of me and rapidly-receding reading material, and I will vehemently disagree with “Of course it is!”

Thus, a trip to the airport bookstore was in order. Here, I was met with a wall of shelf-to-shelf third-rate mysteries, thrillers, and chick lit. Sometimes, I like a good third-rate mystery or thriller, but I wasn’t in the mood. And when you’ve been reading Armistead Maupin, I’m sorry, but third-rate chick lit just won’t do. First-rate, like a good Marian Keyes, maybe, but certainly not third-rate. What I really wanted was the next Armistead Maupin, but that, of course, was sitting at home where I’d blithely informed it I’d never get to it while I was away, and besides, it’s a very rare author whose first book in a series I will read and immediately want to pick up the next one with nothing in between. What a time to discover such an author.

Eventually, I turned around to find the tiny little “literature” section. I’ll quibble a little with some of the choices in this section (Tim LaHaye?), but they did manage to have the likes of Jasper Fforde and Julian Barnes. I found myself longing for my TBR list, which was also back at home, because why would I have needed that? I don’t read a whole lot of contemporary literature unless it’s recommended to me (which is happening at an alarming rate now that I blog), and I don’t tend to remember what’s been recommended without referring to my list. Stuck without it, I had to see if anything seemed familiar.

I was slightly tempted by Beverly Lewis, because she writes about the Amish, and I’ll be living amongst them soon. But I don’t know anything about her, and I was a bit concerned she might be Tim LeHaye Goes to Amish Country or something. I looked for Jacqueline Winspear, because I just read Maisie Dobbs and loved it, but no such luck.

Finally, it boiled down to two titles I recognized: The Red Tent and The Time Traveler’s Wife. What a tough choice! I toyed with the idea of buying both (just in case the one I chose wasn’t as good as everyone says it is), but my luggage was heavy enough. I ended up with The Time Traveler’s Wife.

There are probably those of you out there who are disappointed I didn’t choose The Red Tent, but I’m feeling right now I couldn’t possibly have made a better choice. I haven’t read a contemporary novel that I’ve felt was so perfect since I read The Thirteenth Tale last year (a book, by the way, I can happily say Bob is currently reading and loving as much as I did). I’m funny about time travel. I love nothing better, but I’m highly skeptical and demanding of anyone who takes on the task of writing novels about it. The editor in me is always ready to leap at the slightest inaccuracy or inconsistency. Niffenegger has done such a good job with the topic (much like Connie Willis did in To Say Nothing of the Dog, another one of my favorites) that I’ve readily suspended all disbelief and have forgotten to look for errors.

All I can say is, if I’m not the last person in the world to have read this book, and you’re reading this post and would describe yourself as someone who would like a really good, complicated love story paired with the magnificence of time travel, pick up this book. You won’t be disappointed. (Oh yes, and the speed reader has gone back from whence she came. I’ve been reading this one at my normal pace. I did, however, finish reading all three of the other books before I’d stepped on the plane to come back from Texas.)


Froshty said...

Thank you for writing this! I try to talk myself out of taking 10-12 books with me on trips, because lugging that many around stuffed in both a laptop case and a backpack is very painful, but so far, I haven't been successful. Part of this is because one time I was on a camping trip and ran out of books to read as a day and a half of camping lay ahead of me. We looked everywhere for a place to find something--even a Boater's Paradise magazine--for me to read to no avail. So that is how I ended up reading A Time to Kill twice in a row. But after reading about your experience, I'll concentrate my mental packing arguments on not taking 5 months' worth of conditioner.

Froshty said...

P.S. I love Maupin; I read him when I was pregnant with Anna. Did you know he has a new book out? And three guesses as to where he went to college.

Anonymous said...

Having read both the books your choice came down to I can say you made the right one. Not that the Red Tent is bad, I really enjoyed it, but Time Traveler's Wife is so much better. And if you are ever stuck in the Minneapolis airport, ask for James (that's my husband), he's one of the airport bookstore managers, he'll hook you up with a good book or two :)

Anonymous said...

I love "The Red Tent," it's amazing to read those stories from the women's perspective but I'm also a huge fan of "The Time Traveler's Wife," being a major sucker for all time travel fiction ("Time and Again" is one of my favorites). "The Time Traveler's Wife" is being made into a film right now (starring Eric Bana and Rachel MacAdams), which is a little scary. I hope they don't ruin it.

mandarine said...

Next time, pack an MP3 player with twenty hours worth of your best podcasts: lightweight and speed-reader-proof. If you want to be lulled by French literature, make sure you subscribe to Parking de Nuit (oops, I just found out that the show is suspendad for the summer).

Emily Barton said...

Froshty, it did cross my mind that reading Tales of the City a second time wouldn't be too bad. BTW, read The Time Traveler's Wife. It's a contemporary novel you'll actually like. I think you were the first person who ever told me to read Maupin (it's taken me a long time to get to him, hasn't it?).

Stef, yes, right now I can't imagine I could have chosen ANYthing better, and I will keep James in mind if I'm ever stuck in Minneapolis.

Danny, oh yes! I've forced Time and Again on just about everyone I know: New York AND time travel AND romance. I'll keep my fingers crossed along with you that the movie version of TTW doesn't ruin it (it could be wonderful, couldn't it?).

Mandarine, I'm always thinking that's what I should do, but I'm so much more comfortable with the book format. What I'd like is for Apple to quit fooling around with iPhones and to invent a nice, slim, ebook reader that opens like a laptop, only vertically, is easy on the eyes, and resembles my favorite-sized book, and then, you're right, I'd never have this problem again.

Rebecca H. said...

I'm with Stefanie here -- The Time Traveler's Wife was the best pick (I found The Red Tent a bit too sappy). And I also agree with Froshty that I won't try to talk myself out of taking a stack of books with me wherever I travel!

Rebecca said...

Agreeing with the majority, I really enjoyed The Time Traveller's Wife. Couldn't face The Red Tent. I was trapped bookless in Miami airport for hours and ended up having to read Patriot Games out of sheer desperation, so now I assume one book per day and spares.

litlove said...

What an anxiety-inducing experience to be without books! I've been meaning to read the Maupin for years and years and never have. Perhaps I should do it this summer (I could review it and you wouldn't have to add it to the TBR!) as part of the modern American lit I'm reading. I haven't read the Nifenegger myself, but I'd like to.

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, yes, take that stack of books with you.

Becky, oh God, Patriot Games! You're a far braver soul than I. One book per day sounds reasonable.

Litlove, oh yes, I think you'd like Maupin, and what a relief that would be to my TRB list and me for you to review it. When you get around to reading Time Traveler's Wife, I can with complete confidence say you're going to love it.

ZoesMom said...

I add my vote onto the pile saying you definitely made the right choice. The Time Traveler's Wife is one of those books I almost wish I hadn't read yet just so I could have the experience again.

Emily Barton said...

Zoesmom, I can understand exactly why you feel that way.