In our modern peregrinations, few disappointments seem so regular as the inflight magazine, that haven of has-been columnists and destination-story junketry. But I would like to take a minute to appreciate the genre in all its promise.
The problem with airplanes — and travel in general — is that once I'm on one, I never actually want to do the things I think I'm going to want to do beforehand. I thoughtfully loaded my iPod with eight hours of un-listened Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me! and This American Life episodes, and the new Gossip album: The device stays in my pocket. I schlepped my laptop aboard with a full battery: I will not open it. I brought 2666, intending to finally read it: I won't. The problem with in-flight movies is that they suck, and they let you concentrate on just how uncomfortable your seat is. The problem with novels is eyescratch. The problem with looking at a screen is looking at a screen. On a plane, I always need something else, and I never know what it is. It's a difficult task for any media to successfully anticipate — and meet — needs you can't name.
Which is why inflight magazines can be truly dismal, generally because they mistake their subject for "travel" in the narrow, genre sense of the word: tedious evergreen stories about A New Resort On An Island I Will Never Visit, Which Nonetheless Seems Very Similar To Numerous Islands Featured In Other Travel Stories I Have Read. How many times have you read the One Night In Prague story?
Or, mindful of ad pages, they hawk pages' worth of overpriced gadgets that are uninteresting mainly for being comparatively less ridiculous than the overpriced gadgets in SkyMall. (Oh, how many hours I have killed with SkyMall and its kitchen bench automatic stainless steel tomato pots.) That and somebody always fills in half the crossword, in ballpoint, and then gives up.
But if you think about it, the in-flight magazine — done right — has the potential to publish only really fascinating, enlightening writing: the world is its topic, and after all, it has a kind of captive audience. United's Hemispheres starts each issue off with Dispatches, a Talk Of The Town-ish section that runs story-lets on the things you didn't even know you never knew about: Josephine Baker's 15th Century mansion in the French countryside. Old men who take up positions outside of Wrigley Field in the hopes of catching stray balls. A terrible London musical about Ernest Hemingway's suicide. Then there are the features, like the one I read yesterday about a man who's hunting for Solomon Guggenheim's lost silver. Writer Rachel Sturtz even scored a rare audience with the street artist JR, and produced a wonderful profile of him. So what if there are a few too many pictures of $300 stereos and the occasional bullshit puff piece mars the lineup: this thing made out of paper and glue keeps me awake, and makes me learn things I didn't know before.