The Focused Art of Reading Books Cover-to-Cover on Airplanes

Bethany Crystal
Mar 26, 2018 · 7 min read
A stack of books that I’ve read on airplanes or in other single-day sittings over the years…

One of my favorite things to do on a long airplane ride is to read a book cover to cover.

Obviously this is only possible on long flights, preferably with ample daylight (as opposed to red eyes). We so infrequently find ourselves in one place, uninterrupted for hours on end, that this activity feels to me like a luxury so rarely afforded. I also think this is my body’s way of reminding myself how to partake in the habit of singular focus. Given how distracted my days can be in general, I find that I crave long, uninterrupted periods of book-reading reverie to compensate for all the freneticism.

On January 3, at the tail end of a four-week trip in Europe, I sat down on a plane flying from Charles de Gaulle airport to JFK next to a family moving from India to the U.S. The husband, wife, and their two-year-old son (who had never before been on a plane), had already clocked 20 hours in transit by the time they arrived in France, with another 6 to go until NYC. I was exhausted, wore-torn from my month of travels, and more than ready to be back at home for the first time since November. Naturally, their kid screamed for pretty much the entire flight.

Normally this is the kind of thing that would drive me crazy. But I’m a big fan of people actualizing the American Dream, so I tried to tune out the noise and stay excited about the fact that I was sitting next to a family on their maiden voyage to a country that would be their home for the next several years.

To distract myself, I cracked open a book I’d been procrastinating reading for the entire trip — The Sellout. It was a hard read, full with complex and intricate sentences, confounding ideas, complex characterizations, and ironies that made your brain hurt. By that point, I had opened and read the first 15 pages of the prologue twice through without much progress. But with our company book club meeting just one week away, I had no more excuses. I sat in my window seat, curled my feet atop my messenger bag, and droned out the sounds of the wailing child next to me and plunged into the vivid narrative style of its author, Paul Beatty. By the time we landed, my head was flooded with questions of race, identity, bias, and conformity. I pointed out the Empire State Building to my seatmates, marveling as they gazed out at New York City for the very first time. Somehow these two motifs seemed to blend as one.

I particularly like it when I can somehow theme my books with my travel plans. The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Society took me to England, prompting my swift interest in the Windsor Churchill bunker and other WWII artifacts upon arrival. The Day The World Came to Town, a heart-warming story about how the town of Gander, Newfoundland, came to the aid of 38 planes stranded there for 4 days while the U.S. airspace was closed after 9/11, is a profoundly perfect airplane read on any return trip to NYC. I became so engrossed in Station Eleven, a dystopian novel in which an airport plays a central plotpoint, that I stayed at Laguardia Airport even when my flight was ultimately canceled, finishing up the read at the airport bar over a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. Once, during a bizarre encounter with the host family that had housed me on my study abroad, I regained confidence in my French skills and picked up Cherchez la femme at their suggestion, stumbling over the French literary grammar slowly and steadily all the way back to NYC while sitting next to my former host sister. I made it just about halfway through but never opened it again once I returned to my Brooklyn apartment.

In 2013, I read the back half of 1984 for the first time while en route to a big work conference — sinking my teeth into the meaty part where Orwellian dystopia turns into pure terror. By the end of that flight, I trusted nothing and no one. My body and mind were shells of what they were. Nothing seemed to matter, and everything around me suddenly felt like another setup on a game in which I was a pawn being played in every turn. I looked out the window and saw Las Vegas for the very first time. That would prove to be a very eerie several days.

After a trip last year to New Orleans (another city that you should only stay in for a few days at a time), I spent my final afternoon on a plantation tour, far away from the madness of Bourbon Street and the jazz fest. I learned that the last descendants of slave families had not left that property until the 1970s, and I was astonished to learn how much ignorance I had about slavery in this country. On my return flight to NYC, I read a book I purchased on the property, Memories of the Old Plantation Home, written by a daughter for whom the plantation was named. The memory still jars me a little bit.

Many times the books I read on flights aren’t quite so poignant — ones that I pick up at random at a Hudson Bookstore when I have an extra 20 minutes to kill before boarding. I always find myself craving the same thing: Rich novels with strong writing, complex characterizations, and a compelling conundrum. But I’m not the best at judging a book by its cover. I read One Day, a heart-wrenching novel about two souls whose paths intersect year after year on the same day, and, not liking the end, promptly tossed it out upon arrival. Paris in Pancakes: Living the American Dream in France brought me from Vienna to Paris — a book so poorly written that I merely left it on the street somewhere in the Latin quarter. All Over the Place was a better choice for the start of a trip, despite being a little trite and ultimately forgettable. While The Paris Wife was enjoyable, Amy Snow and Where’d You Go Bernadette did little for me, A Man Called Ove was quirky, if overly predictable, and Startup, a novel parody about the NYC tech industry, was a flat-out mistake.

I prefer in-flight fiction and memoirs — they are easier to consume all in one go. But I have a vivid memory of reading three chapters of The Four Steps to the Epiphany on what was possibly my first-ever work trip to San Francisco, pausing only to concoct my own customer discovery framework en route, which I then used for every customer meeting I had the following week. (I still consider that to be one of my most productive flights to date.) I read Disney U while returning from another San Francisco trip, the day after I stumbled upon the Walt Disney family museum after a work meeting. Appropriately, Deep Work, a book on how to stay focused in our chaotic and distraction-prone society, was also an airplane read. In it, I learned about a writer who booked himself a round-trip ticket to Tokyo for the same day, just so he could have 30–40 uninterrupted hours of time to write a first draft of his book. That seems like the sort of thing I might do some day.

Not all of my reading takes place on airplanes. But even in the real world, I enjoy consuming books in one sitting, as a sort of locational reminder as to my context at the time. Whereas Emergence was a poolside read in Puerto Rico the week before I started my current job, designed to inspire and motivate me in my new role, I crumbled so deeply into Leadership and Self-Deception at a restaurant in the West Village last year that the chef came out to talk me off the ledge and pour me a glass of red wine on the house. I read the bulk of 1Q84, a 800-plus page Haruki Marukami novel, over the course of a single weekend in Astoria back in 2013, changing locations from coffeeshops and bars to various couches and chairs in my apartment, until I finally finished. (Unsatisfied, I will add.) One of my worst reading memories was the day I read The Road, the bleakest book imaginable, which I finished over a sushi lunch special on the Upper West Side that I dragged on for two hours just so I could leave it all in one place. It left me depressed for about a week, and even now, two years later, when that sushi restaurant finally closed its doors, I have to admit that I felt a little relief.

On Friday, I flew from LAX to JFK, a flight path that I’ve been colloquially referring to as “the great American novel of U.S. air travel.” There’s something about flying from one of our country’s largest cities to the other that just feels empowering, romantic, and idealistic. On a whim, when I stopped by the Hudson Bookstore at LAX to pick up my usual bottle of preflight water, I noticed a book that I had heard of just a couple of days earlier — Educated by Tara Westover. The unfathomable memoir of a woman my own age who grew up without ever setting foot in a classroom until age 17, brought up among a family of “end of the world” survivalists, captivated me for 4.5 hours straight. I didn’t budge once, save for the flinching and wincing in my seat as new details emerged in her story. By the time I deplaned in NYC, I was doubled over in empathy and rethinking every decision in my own life.

Of course, you don’t need to read an entire book in one sitting in order to appreciate it. But it’s one of my favorite ways to disconnect and immerse myself deeply in something completely different for a concentrated period of time. If you’d never tried it before, I would suggest giving it at least once to test your ability to stay focused and to enjoy the payoff of completion. And if you have any suggestions for other books I should add to my queue for future flights, I’m all ears.

Bethany Crystal

Written by

GM @USV, alum of @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC