I hardly ever fly anymore, but this column in the San Francisco Chronicle resonated with me. John Flinn, the paper's travel editor, wrote about being stuck on a 16-hour flight from Milan, Italy, without his iPod, with a video screen that conked out before takeoff, and with nothing, absolutely nothing, to read.
(He said there was nothing in the English-language section of the Milan airport bookstore except Danielle Steel and John Grisham. I don't know why Flinn didn't pick up some Grisham, he's a perfectly entertaining writer of suspenseful legal thrillers. And in an emergency, Danielle Steel's not that bad. Not that I'd know from firsthand reading experience, of course).
Flinn describes rummaging around in his bag for an Ambien to help him sleep, but he'd taken the last one in Italy. The only thing that worked on the video screen was the route map, so he fixated on that for awhile. At one point, his wife gets up to use the bathroom and he "dived for her paperback like a starving man going for a deep-dish pizza. I'd barely read two pages, though, before she returned and wrestled her book from me."
He also offers some tips for what to do if you find yourself in a similar situation: commit your passport to memory, try to figure out what all the fuss is about Sudoku, (I wish he'd tell me.) study the Skymall catalog, turn to the route map in the back of the in-flight magazine and memorize the names of all of the "stan" countries.
Some of the comments on the column were pretty good. One person suggested he could have used the time to write haiku, another recommended traveling with a pair of knitting needles and yarn to knit a pair of socks. (Although I bet you can't bring knitting needles on a plane anymore).
A couple of people said that they always travel with a journal or something else to write in. Having paper and pen handy certainly saved me from more than an hour of boredom last spring when I was in New York, by myself, standing in line to take the ferry to Ellis Island. I used the time to jot down some notes about Curtains, the show I'd seen the night before.
One holiday weekend, I didn't plan well and the only thing I had available was a copy of The Thin Red Line, a novel by James Jones about a fictional World War II battle between American and Japanese troops on Guadalcanal. (Jones is best known as the author of From Here to Eternity.) I don't really like war novels, so I'm not even sure why I took it out of the library. All I remember is, I read it pretty quickly and thought it was just okay. I probably finished it on Sunday, and the library was closed until Tuesday, and I couldn't get to someplace to buy a book.
And then there are practical considerations of deciding which book to bring. Is the book so short that you'll finish it too quickly? Is it too heavy to carry? The worst thing is being stuck with very big book you absolutely hate. This did happen to me once. In my case, it was a behemoth of a novel by David Foster Wallace called Infinite Jest. And it truly is a behemoth - 1,088 pages long. And it has footnotes!
Don't ask what possessed me to read it. I know it's kind of a cult classic, but its appeal is way beyond me. The plot centers around a film, Infinite Jest, that is so addictively entertaining, anyone who watches it loses all interest in doing anything else but viewing it repeatedly. I doggedly kept reading, hoping I'd find out what this mysterious movie was about. Well, the joke was on me. I never found the answer, but I did learn quite a bit about the competitive world of junior tennis, a key subplot of the novel.
Running out of reading material used to be a big fear of mine, but I've learned to have a book with me at all times, in case I'm stuck waiting in a doctor's office or who knows where. And now that I have an iPod filled with audiobooks, podcasts and music, the chances of finding myself in a situation like Mr. Flinn's are pretty slim. Still, I could relate. I've been there.