- The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight by Christopher Schaberg
The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight will radically change the way you encounter airports, whether you’re checking out art installations while waiting for your flight or analyzing the airport and air travel scenes in a poem or a novel.
The book modifies our vision of literary as well as everyday air travel and culture through its complex methodology: a formidable convergence of traditional close reading, cultural studies tools, ecocritical analyses, and insights drawn from the author’s personal experiences as an airport employee. Schaberg combines these approaches to examine points of complexity and ambiguity in how we imagine, represent, and utilize airports, arguing “that airports depend on textuality to a great degree, as much for their straightforward operations (such as the daily performances and narratives that play out all the way from the check-in stand to the departure gate), as for their everyday mysteries and inoperative moments (for instance, how a thousand unique stories can be contained in and canceled out by phrases like ‘weather delay’ and ‘lost baggage’)” (2). [End Page 485]
One of the key strengths of The Textual Life is the range of material it critiques, from literary criticism of poetry by Gary Snyder, a selection of young adult Hardy Boys novels, and Don Delillo’s fiction to cultural criticism of the art and architecture of several major airports and philosophical speculation on post-9/11 TSA screening technologies and narratives. Illustrative of Schaberg’s deft maneuvers is the movement in a chapter titled “Bird Citing” that passes from close readings of Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and Gary Snyder’s poem “No Shadow” to a meditation on the Lockheed SR-71 aircraft. He juxtaposes interpretations of SR-71 Blackbird images from Google searches with his description of how Snyder’s poem “conjures multiple points of view: the vantage point of the poet looking down into the valley; the bird’s eye view of a riparian ecosystem; a plane’s trajectory, homing in on the airfield. These points of view are at once shared and held apart, allowing the bird sighting to flip between foreground and background throughout the poem, the osprey and cargo plane appearing to exist on the same scale” (131).
Readers with an eye toward western literature will value Schaberg’s readings of Gary Snyder, Edward Abbey, and Barry Lopez as the focus on air travel casts their works in new light. For example, Schaberg contrasts passages of Abbey’s disgust with waiting in airports with passages that savor the slow waiting for natural events like a desert sunrise (100–101).
Overall, the chapters of The Textual Life of Airports invoke and cross-reference each other with an openness that allows the reader to link them in diverse ways. As such, The Textual Life delivers not a rigidly defined book-length argument but a provocative collection of valuable skyward insights.