In an essay published recently in The New Yorker, Milan Kundera writes that "Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible."
I read this while I was thinking about what books to take with me on a long plane flight. I find plane travel uncomfortable because I don't particularly like being confined with other people so close by. (Not that I like being confined at all, but the lack of personal space is the insult to the injury.) Thus, I always bring the most easily engrossing books I can find for flights because nothing else provides nearly enough escape. (Well, I suppose alcohol does, but I hate going to the bathroom on planes. . . .)
Some people who know me might assume the sorts of books I would find engrossing for a plane ride would be things like the complete works of Proust, or at least Faulkner. Big books. Difficult books. Books with lasting aesthetic value that have survived their authors.
But no. Through experience, I have discovered that the most useful books to me on long flights are mysteries and thrillers. I have tried to read War and Peace, Walden, and Moby Dick on planes, without success. I stared out the window and resented the person sitting next to me and the person lowering their seat into my lap. I did read those books later, with joy and appreciation, but they were not good choices for flights.
Hannibal, though, that was perfect. I discovered this on a flight back from Mexico, where I had been for two months. In Mexico, I had read big, difficult books because my hunger for literature in English was so strong that I probably could have zoomed through a thousand-page government report as if it were Goodnight, Moon. In packing for Mexico, I'd thought I had brought along enough books to keep me busy for twice as long as my stay. But I had not. I finished my big, difficult books a few days before I left the country. I was stuck. I couldn't bear the idea of flying home without a new book to read. I went to the one bookstore in the town where I was staying and discovered a rack of books in English. Bestsellers. Not just any bestsellers, either. Romance novels with covers portraying big-bosomed women and men bathing in pastel light, books full of bulleted lists by business gurus, picture books, cookbooks, books by Ann Coulter. Nothing that seemed more attractive to me than staring out the window of a plane for hours.
Except Hannibal. I had read Thomas Harris's other novels of Hannibal Lecter, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, and though neither of them was anything I'd ever want to read again, they had been diverting enough, and I'd much prefer having Hannibal Lecter running through my imagination than Ann Coulter.
Thus, I bought Hannibal and read it on the flights back home, and though one of my flights got cancelled, and then its replacement got cancelled, I found these to be only mild inconveniences, so long as I got home before finishing the last page of the book. The story engrossed me and made no demands on my intellect; reading it was similar to dreaming. I wanted to know what happened next whenever I turned a page, and yet the various interruptions that occur on planes and in airports couldn't halt my enjoyment, my dreaming, my escape, because the plain and basic style of writing and the clear, engrossing, and occasionally repetitive plot were easy to return to after telling a flight attendant I'd like a Dr. Pepper without ice or asking an airline representative if I would be arriving anywhere in the northeast within the week. The book was, in most respects, and particularly aesthetically, "ephemeral, commonplace, conventional," and those qualities were exactly what helped make it just what I needed at that moment because anything more challenging and unconventional would have been too much.
Ever since Hannibal, I have packed thrillers and mysteries in my carry-on luggage. Mass market paperbacks are the perfect size of book for travel, and so my tendency to bring too many books isn't particularly burdensome. I am as grateful to the writers of engrossing, easy-to-read books as I am to writers such as Tolstoy and Faulkner, Kafka and Beckett because though the latter have given me some of the most powerful reading experiences of my life, the former have done something just as useful—they have made otherwise dull and uncomfortable hours pass more quickly, less painfully. I would be a fool to declare one or the other superior; each has its place and value, and were I to expect the one type of book to do for me what the other does, I would live a life of tremendous disappointment, frustration, bitterness, and, more than anything else, discomfort.
Therefore, preparing for what is going to be the longest series of flights I have yet been on, I recently went shopping at a used book store. A couple of friends who accompanied me thought I was behaving strangely because I insisted on looking only at small books, and I hardly spent any time in any section of the store other than the mystery/thriller shelves. I found a couple of James Bond novels—perfect! I'd been meaning to read those for years, and was particularly interested to see how the novel of Casino Royale compared to the new movie, which I had mostly enjoyed (though it was at least half an hour too long. I was pleased to see the book was thin). I found Michael Connelly's The Poet, a novel someone had once recommended to me, and stories of serial killers are a particular favorite of mine when flying at 35,000 feet.
And then the treasure: a couple of novels Donald Westlake wrote under the pseudonym Richard Stark. These are nihilistic tales of capers and heists, out of print and sometimes difficult to find (at least for the sort of money I'm willing to pay for this sort of book), and utterly perfect for a long flight.
When I was younger, I might have aspired to become like Milan Kundera, to have little patience with anything other than the best of the best books, the books that aspire to lasting aesthetic value because why settle for something relatively ephemeral when you can have the best of the ages?
What Kundera doesn't realize, though, is that books have lots of different uses, and so calling one type inherently less useful than another is, at least for me, ridiculous because if the label useful has any application to books, then the application is situational. When I want my brain to be filled with the richest, most complex, most invigorating, challenging, and powerful works of art that novelists have so far created, then yes, I will read the sorts of books he praises. But those books are useless to me on airplanes, or when I have the flu, or when I just need to shut my brain down for a bit because it's threatening to jump the rails. I could watch TV, I could stare out the window, I could try to sleep, but I'd rather read because I love stories and I love words, and the act of reading is familiar and even comforting for me.
Books survive their authors for various reasons, sometime aesthetic, often not. When packing my carry-on bag, though, I'm not looking for a book that will survive its author. The only book useful to me in such a situation is the sort of book that will help me survive a flight.