Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question comes from Senior Writer Jason Heller: What’s your favorite pop culture to enjoy on a plane?
I’m about to fly to Ireland for my honeymoon, so the topic of what kind of pop culture people enjoy on planes has been on my mind lately. I’m not the kind of person who can concentrate on a movie while flying, and it seems that when it comes to music, it’s always the same artists: Led Zeppelin and Kate Bush, for some reason. Mostly, though, I stick to books. Planes are the perfect place to focus on a novel without distractions, and flying also gives you the excuse to read something a little trashier than you might normally be seen with in public—thanks to the limited selection of titles usually carried at your average airport bookseller. If I had to pick a favorite novel that I’ve ever read while flying, though, it wouldn’t be a trashy one: It would be Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. It’s not a perfect book by any means, but I’ll always associate it with a trip I took to New York in early 2002. Flying into the city that soon after 9/11 brought its own baggage along, but a lot of issues Gaiman addresses in American Gods—namely, the power that can come from belief, both good and bad—resonate in a way that Gaiman could not have intended, seeing as the book was published in early 2001. The story of an ex-con named Shadow who falls in with a group of dark, secretive beings, the novel in itself is a travel-based narrative, with many parts of America viewed through the eyes of a particularly unconventional assortment of immigrants. I’m not trying to say American Gods is some kind of deep expression of the turn-of-the-century zeitgeist, but it really did make my brain squirm and my skin crawl while I was reading it on that flight—more so, I think, than if I had read it while sitting safely on the ground. That said, I think I might read something a little lighter on my flight to Ireland.
I’m on a plane right as I write this! With wi-fi! And cramped so tight I can barely type properly. I’m not a huge fan of flying, so I always have something to keep myself occupied, and lately it’s been TV shows. Movies get interrupted, and books generally don’t distract me enough. So I like to have enough episodes of whatever show I’m watching to keep me busy. On this flight, to L.A., so far I’ve watched the most recent two episodes of Fargo, which I’m enjoying immensely. It seems strange to call it “light,” because there’s been plenty of murder and mayhem, but there it is. I also tend to watch movies on airplanes that I’d never watch otherwise, which is why I saw both Thor movies on airplanes, and both were pretty terrible. I think I’ll actually go finish the second one now—I’ve got about 20 minutes of it left, since I had to shut it off for landing a couple of weeks ago.
Laura M. Browning
My list of TV Shows To Watch is embarrassingly long. That’s partly because the only way I know how to consume television is to start at episode one of season one, drop everything else in my life, and binge-watch until I’m done. So when I flew to London earlier this year, I was delighted that I was going to be forced out of my unhealthy ways and would be able to chip away at many of the TV shows I’ve been meaning to watch but haven’t made time for. In two transatlantic flights, I watched a couple episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which I wanted to check out, but I likely won’t become a regular viewer; the first four eps of Broadchurch (though I binge-watched the rest of the season as soon as I got back home); and some old episodes of Cheers, which I watched here and there when it originally aired, but not since. I’d also just read Zack Handlen’s excellent (if slightly blasphemous) look at why he thinks Elementary is better than Sherlock, so I was excited to watch a couple of episodes of Elementary without having to commit to the whole thing. Being pent up for eight hours in a too-small seat with limited television selection has a surprisingly healthy effect on how I watch TV.
This is not something I do consciously, but as I thought of an answer to this question, I realized that when I travel, I tend to relax with pop culture that involves travel. The last time I took a long plane flight, I passed part of the time by re-watching Up In The Air, Jason Reitman’s bittersweet story of frequent fliers who miss their personal connection. Last year, for a lazy train ride up to New Hampshire, I loaded The Darjeeling Limited onto my iPad and discovered a new love for the delicately rendered tension between the three brothers. Even when I was in Japan, riding the Shinkansen “bullet trains,” I used to read Isaac Asimov novels, especially the more recent books in the Foundation series. Their late 20th-century visions of bouncing around the galaxy proved to be a nice complement to the transportation system of Japan, which, like the books, is both futuristic and quaint. These were all works I’d encountered before, but I guess I was drawn back to them by the opportunity to enliven them with a fitting context.
Any time I spend on a plane is time I probably should spend working, so my fellow air travelers are likely to find me (and/or be annoyed by me) assembling my laptop and other screens into an ungainly tray-table entertainment center. So anything I consume for pleasure during these trips is usually edible. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always enjoyed traveling with a bag of Skittles. Emphasis on the bag: On our yearly trips to visit my grandparents in Phoenix, my family always traveled with a bulk package of Skittles, emptied into a resealable pouch so that my brother and I didn’t spill the rainbow at 20,000 feet. It’s one of those memories of youth that’s become practically synesthetic as I’ve grown older; I can’t open a bag of Skittles without thinking about crowding into coach, and I can’t hear Jimmy Eat World’s “Goodbye Sky Harbor” (the preferred “It is now safe to use portable electronic devices” track of my teenage years, since I was usually departing from the song’s namesake airport) without feeling like I have a mouthful of sugar. Of course, the experience is incomplete now that Wrigley has allowed a wretched sour-apple simulacrum to replace Skittles’ traditionally lime-flavored green pieces—but that’s a whole other angry rant.
I travel a lot—I was on a plane earlier today—so this is a great question, Jason, because I think about it a lot. As frustrating as air travel can be, I find that I am much more receptive to pop culture when I’m waiting in airports or looking out the window of an airplane. Partly it’s the waiting without Internet access—and partly it’s that being alone in a crowd of thousands makes me more than usually contemplative. So I often put on my headphones and listen to a lot of music. Often I listen to stuff that’s got a sentimental attachment to where I’m going. So there’s a lot of “New York, I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down” when I’m in and out of the city. Or Wilco’s “Via Chicago” when I’m flying home. I have a whole playlist, actually, that is just songs about both New York and Chicago, for my many trips between the two. It’s good for plane travel, long drives, and crying.
Since my life is firmly rooted in the Midwest, I tend to take more trains and double-decker Megabuses than airplanes. But regardless of the mode of transportation, my go-to entertainment is always the same: young adult novels. The best YA is thought provoking, yet easy to read. That’s the perfect balance for a trip in which my focus is half on my novel and half on defending the empty bus seat next to me. Even better, an accessible page-turner helps the time fly by. I finished the first Hunger Games book on the bus from Chicago to St. Louis, and I tackled the Twilight and Divergent series on other trips. (Thankfully I saved the tearjerker The Fault In Our Stars for the privacy of my own home. No one wants to be seated next to the girl who can’t stop crying for a five-hour trip.) While there’s certainly a wide range of quality in the genre, even less-than-stellar YA fare tends to be fast-paced and easy to read. Engrossing myself in world building and big emotional journeys is the perfect distraction from the cramped quarters of planes, trains, and buses.
Why, hardcore pornography, of course. What else would I watch while sitting elbow to elbow with strangers? In all seriousness, I like really dumb, fluffy novels while on planes. I’ve been known to grab some vapid chick lit at the Hudson News or, now that I have a Kindle, download the whole Vampire Academy series because I know I’ve got a bunch of flights coming up. I don’t know why I like reading total crap on flights. I think it’s because maybe I can just flip through stuff, not worry about it holding my full attention, and then leave the offending material at my hotel or with my flight attendant, thus making a clean break between the less-than-intelligent fodder and me. For what it’s worth, I also like reading Vanity Fair on flights, but that’s not nearly as trashy.
Don’t joke about the hardcore porn, Marah. Once, I thought it was an awesome idea to watch the screener of Masters Of Sex while on a train. It was not.
I love airport bookstores because they give me an excuse to read something that I wouldn’t normally pick up. Let’s be honest, it’s usually trash, but for every bodice-ripping historical romance I’ve devoured, there are also happy accidents as well, namely the Game Of Thrones books. The bookstore in the Providence airport was pushing A Song Of Ice And Fire a couple months before the show premiered. It’s perfect for airport reading: I found it immediately engrossing, and it was long enough that I didn’t mind that my flight had been delayed yet again. While a pain in the ass to lug around, the length of the books also means I only need one form of entertainment per ride, a fact I put to the test when I took A Storm Of Swords from Newark to Berlin. Word to the wise: Staying up to read through an entire overnight flight will not help you with jet lag.
I always bring books on planes, but inevitably, all I want to do is claim an arm rest, down a tiny bottle of wine, close my eyes, and listen to podcasts. Podcasts are perfect for travel because they don’t suck your phone battery dry, and you get to make everyone jealous of what an awesome time you’re having/freak everyone out when it looks like you’re laughing for no good goddamn reason. My go-to podcasts are Throwing Shade, Comedy Bang! Bang!, and The Moth. Recently, though, I’ve been working my way through The New Yorker’s fiction reading series, which has authors reading short stories they loved from the magazine, so they never get less timely. (Lauren Groff reading Alice Munro’s “The Axis” is from 2011, and just lovely.) For my next flight, I’m cuing up The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project to help me mourn the season (but hopefully not series) finale of Review.
I seldom fly, and do so with great anxiety when I absolutely can’t avoid doing so. It may be something about having my life be completely out of my control in the hands of an industry where cost-cutting and my not dying are of equal importance. Anyway, the last time I flew (over an entire ocean, for crying out loud), I was sitting hunched in my traditional doom-posture, when I was unaccountably relieved, and then delighted, when Virgin Airlines rolled out three straight hours of pleasant, familiar American sitcoms. Friends is the only one I can remember, but the entire cross-Atlantic flight was programmed as if designed to cater to an uneasy American afraid he’d never regain the comfort and security he’d given up with his boarding pass. Could I have been any more pleasantly surprised?
For books I tend to need more concentration than a plane provides. So if there is a fancy film library available in the seat of my plane, I will catch up on the fluffiest movies and TV I can find. A plane is no place to appreciate cinematography or watch a tearjearker, but there’s always that movie you don’t necessarily care about but are happy to see so long as it’s right there and nobody has to know except the person trapped in the middle seat next to you, but you don’t know them and they’ve been watching Kylie Minogue videos on repeat for three hours, so if you want to cringe your way through What’s Your Number, then nobody tells on anybody else. (Exceptions to this rule: a plane movie that I missed in theaters but isn’t available to rent yet, so technically I’m killing time AND saving $14, which is the only thrifty thing to do.) If there is not a fancy film library, it’s a sign the plane wants me to take a nap.
Genevieve’s answer made me chuckle, because I read far less than I would like to, so pretty much the only thing I like about air travel these days is getting to read a nice, long book. It’s the primary way I got caught up on George R.R. Martin’s books and first read The Fault In Our Stars last year. And in my travels recently, I’ve been rereading classics I’ve loved in the past and want to revisit, books like Huckleberry Finn and Middlemarch. But I’ve also been known to love my gadgets, and if I’m overtired while traveling (which happens too often), I’m just as likely to play stupid games on my iPad. During a particularly hellish journey home last holiday season, which involved spending something like 72 hours in airports, Angry Birds Seasons, oddly enough, was the only thing keeping me sane. So I never fly, but when I do, I get caught up on stuff I’ve been meaning to do for a while.
I generally fly at least twice a year—that’s how often the Television Critics Association press tour takes place—and whenever I do, I always make an effort to start the trip in the right mindset by bringing along a non-fiction book about TV. Sometimes it’s an autobiography of someone in the business, be it an actor, writer, or director, or sometimes it’s an in-depth look at the history of a particular genre or a specific series. Whatever the case, it’s a habit that’s resulted in adding several invaluable tomes to my reference library. I don’t care if print is supposedly dead: There’s nothing quite like being able to lean back in your desk chair, reach over to your bookcase, and pull out exactly the book you need to produce the perfect quote or fact.
I have two elementary-school-age kids so, between lack of free time and the expense of a babysitter, I don’t go to the movies unless it’s something really worthwhile. I’ll plan a night out around 12 Years A Slave or The Grand Budapest Hotel. But if I’m in a movie theater, it’s probably to see something G-rated (although in a year that gave us Frozen, The Lego Movie, and Muppets Most Wanted, that’s not a terrible thing). At home, the Golden Age Of Television takes priority over movies I didn’t see in first run. But when I’m on an airplane, with a limited selection, and nothing better to do? That’s my golden opportunity to watch cheesy action movies. You can keep your airport gift shop novels and carefully curated iPod selection; I’ll happily take two responsibility-free hours with a tiny bag of pretzels, a cup of ice spritzed with orange juice, and the unnecessary remake of The A-Team.
I have to place myself in the same camp as Todd, in that I generally try to use long flights—which don’t come along as often as I might like—as an opportunity to catch up on more challenging books that I might not be able to find time for otherwise. I remember passing the time on a transatlantic flight a couple years ago by working my way through David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The book’s nested structure provided some nice incentive to plow through the tougher sections—in particular the one right at the center of the novel, as it’s written in a patois that’s particularly tricky to understand at 30,000 feet—and get back to the endings of the various interrupted stories. Various recent flights also gave me a golden opportunity to get into the espionage novels of John Le Carré. I read The Spy Who Came In From The Cold in a matter of hours and made relatively short work of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, though I suspect I’m going to need another long flight if I’m ever going to refocus and finish off The Honourable Schoolboy. That’s not to say that my plane-based tastes are always quite so highbrow. Once, unable to sleep on a 12-hour flight back from New Zealand and desperate to pass the time with a movie, I got about three minutes into Synecdoche, New York before my zonked brain decided I needed something a little less challenging: specifically, the John Travolta and Miley Cyrus-voiced animated adventure movie Bolt. It was pretty good!