April 10, 2015

Readings in the sky: a new frontier in book publishing?


A 1975 photo of a very brown Boeing 737. (Southwest's livery is now considerably less brown.) (via Wikimedia Commons)

A 1975 photo of a very brown Boeing 737. (Southwest’s livery is now considerably less brown.) (via Wikimedia Commons)

Books have made frequent appearances on airplanes for over a century. Ever since the Wright Brothers argued about what tomes to pack for their first three-second-long flight over Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina (Wilbur didn’t think that they should be weighed down by so many graphic novels), air travel and reading have been mutually compatible. In the century that has passed since those heady days of early aviation, many air travelers have deployed books for a number of uses: seduction tool, awkward conversation ender, blunt object.

Until now, though, there has been one big difference between the earth and the sky: the former tends to be the site of book readings, while the latter does not. But according to Slate’s Jonathan L. Fischer, readings have begun their conquest of the heavens:

On Monday, my wife and I lurched onto an 8:40 a.m. Southwest flight from Lambert-St. Louis International Airport to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, hoping to catch up on a few hours of sleep or get a little work done. Just before takeoff, a man in a suit at the front of the plane picked up the intercom, introduced himself as Eric Greitens, and announced that our flight would contain a little surprise. We both sighed.

Later in the flight, Greitens proceeded to read a chapter from his new book, Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life. Passengers who submitted a question for Greitens received a $100 Southwest gift card and, if I’m reading Fischer correctly, everyone on board won a nine-CD audiobook of Resilience.

What’s going on here? The Greitens reading was part of a Southwest initiative called Artists on the Fly, which is not, unfortunately, a program that rewards Ed Ruscha with free flights to the destination of his choice. (Airline executives: if you’re reading this, please give Ed Ruscha free flights. He’s great.) Rather, the program brings musicians—and now writers—aboard a few flights a year in an effort to entertain passengers and, naturally, make Southwest look like a friendly alternative to airlines that charge $4 for Pepsi. (I’m looking at you, Norwegian.)

In his very funny piece, Fischer quotes a Southwest employee saying scary things:

In general, says Southwest community engagement coordinator Kim Boller, the airline wants to work with artists who fit into the “Southwest culture,” people who are “fun-loving, carefree, have a smile on their face.” Makes sense. The only thing offensive about an author like Eric Greitens (earnest, patriotic) or a band like one-time Southwest in-flight entertainment Imagine Dragons (anthemic, vanilla) is the sheer fact of their presence on a cramped and inescapable flight.

Indeed, there are few things more horrifying than the idea of being forcibly subjected to “fun-loving, carefree” people. Though of course, you could just put on headphones and read or listen to some other, less fun-loving book.

Is this initiative “a fix for the publishing industry’s woes,” as Slate’s photo caption cheekily suggests? It’s an unquestionably clever idea: even if some passengers find in-flight readings deeply annoying, it’s doubtful that they’ll take their feelings out on the author. And the rest will come away from their flight exposed to a book they may not have otherwise encountered.

Still, I doubt that Southwest will start including readings on all of its flights, along with pretzels and peanuts, or that it will soon rebrand itself as “an entertainment company that sells air travel.” And I don’t see all readings migrating to airplanes, as independent booksellers suddenly struggle to figure out what to do with their event spaces. Artists on the Fly is a gimmick, and a good one, but it wouldn’t be all that effective if air travelers got used to the idea.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy reading at your own pace, without any disruptions other than turbulence, your neighbor’s regular visits to the bathroom, and the knowledge that you’re sitting in a tube precariously hovering 35,000 feet above the earth.


Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.