V. "Airport Books and Lou Reed in LaGuardia"
I once heard someone refer to a novel they were reading as an "airport book." I was sitting in a café and overheard a conversation at the small table over my shoulder. Two women were talking, catching up or something akin to that. One was asking about kids, another about boyfriends or a husband. "What have you been reading lately?" one asked. "Oh, this novel, a guy I work with recommended it. I forget the title, something about a road to somewhere. It won an award though, has one of those gold medals on the cover. I'm sure you'd know it though. It's an airport book, haha."
Calling something an "airport book" seems insulting to any author, that their book could be dismissed as just a distraction for a plane ride is a shitty deal. Books take years — someone should give it more than a planeride's consideration. But hey, that's how it is. Books are sold in airports. Sold next to three dollar bags of peanuts.
Look at novels like Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, or Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The former won the Pulitzer, the latter the Booker — two of the most prestigious awards a novelist can win. Yet both are for sale, and have been for some time, in piles on the oak tables of the bookstores in LaGuardia airport where I am now standing. "An airport book" she had said. "Something for the plane," she had said. Either of these books could be characterized as such. Stories to distract — words and sentences so long and orderly one can lose themselves in them, forget reality, become immersed in an art that creates whole new realities, which creates whole new selves.
"Airport books." Powerful books, really. Yet I often feel towards many of them that they are weaker than true literary gems. I liked both books here when I read them last summer, but neither was Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Sons and Lovers. Books for sale in the airport are like the muzak in a doctor's office waiting room. They are like paintings sold off card tables on Park Avenue. Not bad, perhaps brilliant at times, but easily dismissable because they haven't been authenticated as great. Only time will tell for them; as for now, they have to wait.
But even "the test of time" won't really start until the books are out of the airports. You can't even apply to go to college until you take the SATs, and "airport books" haven't really taken the required test. Top 40 pop songs, paintings on Park Avenue — they are the "now," they are the base of what will in the future be known as history, but who's to say that the "terrible pop" now won't be regarded as the "intimations to a future brilliance" later?
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LaGuardia Nat'l Airport, 4:58 PM, April 22, 2005 waiting in line at Starbucks.
– You're full of shit, he is saying, shaking his head at me.
– No, no, no. I don't mean to say that I am waiting for the approval of academia to accept something as great or something as terrible, but I am waiting for novels to age. Novels need to be removed from the context of the time they were written — even historical novels — for it is only with the passage of time that we can see something more purely, and truly than regard the work as successful. Surely a novel dealing with a World War II plane crash, if written during World War II, would be written in a certain way to deal with the ideas of the war, etc, and it would also be read a certain way by that audience, an audience also going through the war. And it might be powerful, emotional. But only then. Its success might lie only in that WWII audience. In 1968 or 2001 it might seem sentimental, poorly written. The emotion was not actually in the novel, but in the context, the audience.
– Okay, I see what you are saying, but that doesn't mean that the World War II novel wasn't great to the people reading it during WWII. In 1968, a lot of those people might still have been alive, and they might still have thought it was a great novel. Isn't the greatness of the novel measured by the people who read it?
I just got off a flight from Richmond, VA, and now I am standing in line at a Starbucks in the Delta terminal of LaGuardia. The bus into the city isn't going to be here for about half an hour – I just missed the last one – so I browsed around the little bookstore for a little bit and started talking to Chandley, a man of about 60 with long gray hair, glasses, a hipster goatee. He started laughing across an oak table covered in airport books and asked why I was looking at all these shitty things when I've got a copy of Madame Bovary in my back pocket.
I said I had nothing better to do; I am waiting for the bus to the city. Him too, he said. But I don't have a copy of Bovary to read.
We walked over to the ever-present Starbucks cart to get some coffee before the bus came, and started talking about books. Chandley is a professor of American Studies and History in the city, and he had that way about him of never giving his own opinion, but always just questioning someone else's and making them defend themselves. I hate when someone does that to me. I am usually the one to do that to other people.
– I know what you mean, I tell him. And I guess I have to agree somewhat. Yeah, people now who were alive to see Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival might still remember Dylan in terms of the original context in which he was writing and playing his most famous songs. But me — I love Dylan. I think his records, Blood on the Tracks, Blonde on Blonde, those are records that are as relative now as they were then. They are great because they can adapt to the passage of time. We have no idea if Middlesex or Life of Pi will do the same. But it seems to me that we are both just taking the safest route of assuming that they won't.
– Well in appreciating Dylan, aren't you only appreciating his music because you heard it once based on the fact that he was so popular within his original context, and thus has been able to continue to make records? Didn't someone recommend it to you?
– Yes, but wouldn't I not care after that initial listen? Wouldn't I think he was trash if his songs were truly only good within their original context, like that World War II book?
Chandley nods. Apparenlty I have passed a test or something. We are now at the front of the line and order our coffees, both 20 ounce drips. I'm going outside for a smoke, he says. Let's keep talking out there if you don't mind.
Outside it is windy, cloudy. A long line of cabs, men in cheap suits hold signs with the names of wealthier people on them and wait. Chandley lights a cigarette and I decline his offer for one myself. Can't do that anymore I say. He nods and laughs.
– Alright man, let me tell you a story, he says. There was this one time I met Lou Reed. You know Lou, right? Lead singer of Velvet Underground, played with Bowie and all that in the sixties and seventies?
– Yeah, of course. I love the Velvet Underground.
– Okay, right, he says. This has a little to do with what we're talking about. Because you know Lou's band, the Velvets, they didn't sell records for shit when they came out, but that was probably a good thing, since Andy, you know, Andy Warhol, he was producing them and everything and they were supposed to be this art thing. Plus it was like right in the middle of the peace and love hippie movement, and a song like "Heroin" wasn't exactly what was going
to be popular. But that was what they needed. They needed to be that underground thing so that when people looked back on them, they would be unappreciated, avant-garde, before the rest of everything, man.
Chandley takes a long drag and blows out long wool ribbons of gray.
– Okay, so you see how that applies, right? They weren't popular, but over time they came to be known as great. They were so hugely influential, it's like anyone who ever saw them or heard one of their records went out and started a band the next day. Anyways, I met Lou in 1983 out in London. And Lou, man, Lou's a nut for Raymond Chandler, you know, detective stories. We were in this bookstore, and I only thought of this because you have Bovary in your back pocket, but I was in London looking at this original French version of it — I know, in London I am looking at French, you'd think Paris — but yeah, so I am looking through it and I see Lou Reed, and I am like Hey man, I just wanted to say I love everything you've done. I know I am being a total fuck when I say that now, but I've been listening to you guys since '67. And you know what Lou did? He asked me what I was reading, and when I said Madame Bovary, he said ugh, I fucking hated that book. Too depressing.
– I know! I mean, Lou is supposed to be the man, right? He is supposed to fucking love a book like Bovary. But no, he thinks it's too depressing. So man, what I am saying is just that people like Lou, even though he's a part of this band, The Velvet Underground, that right now, yeah, might be great and have passed the test of time, he still thinks some shit sucks and likes detective novels instead. I mean, Raymond Chandler's stuff is good, but I don't think either of us would say it's as good as Bovary.
– I've never even read Chandler. But wait, so you are saying that subjectivity is more important than. That, like, everyone likes what they like and there is no sure thing. No obective right or wrong, everything just sort of is what it is to everyone and that's the truth. Sort of a Kafka thing? Even me wanting to wait for time to pass before I make a judgment is just my own subjective way, it isn't necessarily right.
Chandley shakes his head and throws his dying cigarette onto the sidewalk before the terminal.
– Naw man! I am saying that it doesn't matter a fuck what I think or Lou thinks or you think. Not about how to read or listen or look, it doesn't matter. You just do what you do and you try to enjoy it. You don't have to have a reason to like something, or an idea of why something is good. There is just emotion and the moment, and if you enjoy Middlesex or Life of Pi now, then fucking love them now and hate them later. If you love them now, then at least there is love instead of fucking hate. Yeah, you can call that subjectivity or existential, or "live in the moment' shit, but really it doesn't matter.
– But aren't you a part of academia? Aren't you supposed to give subjectivity the big "fuck you" and look for objective patterns and everything?
– Yeah, but what the fuck do I know? If I could do it all over again, I would have built wooden ships.
We got on the bus and went into the city talking about our favorite Velvet Underground songs. At Port Authority, we said goodbye, shook hands, and went off.