I’m not afraid of flying, but I’m deathly afraid of flying underprepared. I’m a light packer when it comes to clothes, but my carry-on is unwieldy and absurd. Any trip demands at least two books—one fun, one serious—and a couple of magazines—worthy and trashy—because the idea of being stranded in the air without sufficient reading material is terrifying.
The variety is crucial. Who knows, after all, what you might crave in the world of the air? You might be a different person.
For some of us, books are a security blanket. It starts in childhood, when your parents may need to pry reading matter from your hands to encourage sociability, and continues into adulthood. Even on land, I feel tetchy and anxious when I don’t have at least two things to read in my bag—for the subway or bus, sure, but more for those moments of uncertainty or solitude that might strike at any moment.
It would be easy to say that technology has rendered this phenomenon obsolete, and certainly the anxiety I describe is more often associated with phone addicts. But I think they’re distinct sorts of comfort—private and social—and you still see kids with faces buried in their books in a sort of desperate escape that is both heartening and heartbreaking.
Just as there are those of us who will never lose the need for the reassuring escape of books, I imagine there are others who in any age would have done without. You see these people on planes, sometimes. I sat near such a man only the other day on a five-hour flight: he had brought nothing to read, nothing to watch, nothing to do. He simply sat. And he didn’t look particularly bored or restless; it was as though the possibility of entertainment—the airport magazine stands and the world of e-readers and books—had never even occurred to him. At one point, he picked up the in-flight magazine, at another he stared up at the movie showing on the overhead screen, but without putting on headphones. My initial pity gave way to a grudging respect: clearly this man had inner resources most of us don’t possess. He was free: free of fear, and free of the particular sort of materialism that is the need for tangible objects.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.