Friday, August 28, 2009

Books in Airports

Books on Walls, on Shelves, in Hands

I cannot help but notice the semiotic power of books every time I enter an airport. Interestingly, the idea occurred to me to write about "books in airports" (in contrast to simply "airport books") when I was walking down the concourse of Midway Airport on the way to a flight to Albany, New York this past month. It all began when at one moment, I looked up and saw this illuminated "billboard" which was, in fact, an image of a giant rustically worn book, made to look like a journal or much beloved personal Bible, opened to the center. Yet what was written was an advertisement for the Sierra Club and the legacy of Lewis and Clark two centuries later. As you might imagine, being the bibliophile I am, I was immediately drawn to the curious nature of this ad, to its use of a book for a prop, and to the way they simply created a vibrant image out of a literary and semiotic artifact, in order to draw in the viewer, consumer, and public to the message of the Sierra Club.

Within seconds, camera now in hand and ready, I turned the corner from this illuminated masterpiece and was confronted with this gallows of phonebooks, hanged as men, hung as dead weights. I never understood the abusive look of this set-up, though I fully understand its usefulness. And as many of you have already discovered, my visceral attachments to phonebooks are not nearly as nostalgic or tactilely emotive as with other books. Interestingly, regarding the semiotic value of books, when we encounter such books as these, no one assumes that these are the latest mass-produced Jodi Picoult favorites, nor L'Etranger by Camus hanging there. That just wouldn't be cool, as the kids say. (Why the heck would there be seven copies of Camus hanging from a plastic gallows in Midway airport, anyway?) The point is, the hanging phonebooks serve as yet another example of the semiotic value and principle of books in society. "Of course they're phonebooks!" you mockingly say. Well, this is no snarky repartee, my friends. This is serious (and at times, solemn) business. But let's go on.

Now, of course, there is the "airport bookshop." One of the things that surprised me was the diversity of book locations to be found in airports. In my case, during this little study, there was the illuminated Sierra Club image, the phonebook gallows, and the bookshop (Hudson's Book Shop, at left). But there were, as you all might have expected, many, many people reading books publicly. And not just sitting down: reading in chairs, reading standing up, reading while walking, reading while leaning. I've touched upon some of these kinesthetic arts in my conference papers at ATLA and elsewhere in recent years, but there is certainly much more to discover in these ambulatory, cognitive, and locomotive reading behaviors among humans, especially in airports. One of my favorite sightings in Midway on this trip was of a woman slouched and bent in a chair with a book nearly two feet above her head, her arms outstretched, her eyes fixed to the pages of the book. I wanted to go up and take a photo of her, but that would have seemed really odd. Though, admittedly, I did take this photo of a man reading at the line-up station of Southwest Airlines, of course, for your visual benefit.

These are surely commonplace sites (and sightings) for books in airports, but as you will discover shortly, these are not the only places that books are found. In fact, there is the "in between" place for books: the plane itself. And you will see that in the pocket in front of me on the plane was my "airplane read," snugly fit into the front pocket--it was a history of the Erie Canal, entitled Bond of Union, which served me well in some of my other research for this blog in August (forthcoming articles will include: "Books and/on/near the Erie Canal" and "Books on Tugs," among others).

The Interfaith-fulness of Airports...

After a not-so-long flight from Chicago to Albany, I arrived in the Albany International Airport, a small, almost intimate, very clean and hospitable place. Just off the plane and heading toward the restroom, I saw a little room off to the side, darkened through the glass window, but offering a little glow of blue light. I walked over and recognized this place from the small placard fixed to the door: "Interfaith Prayer Room." Immediately, I thought: "Ah! What an ample opportunity to discover something new...and presumably with books!" And indeed, I was quite right. As soon as I went in, I discovered a number of things, which I thought might be of interest to readers, bibliophiles, and travelers of like-minded ilk. The first photo is of a card declaring and describing the sacred space (or, perhaps in its multi-religious, multi-faith way, it should be sacred "spaces" in the plural, but I'll let you decide).

Just to the right of this card, which was sitting on a combination stand-bookshelf-credenza (which I will show you in a photo shortly) was a guest book for people to sign as they come in or go out. I didn't sign it, but perhaps I should have. Many people write their reflections of the space (and in many ways of themselves and of their experiencing of the space), which may be a fine little exercise in public reflection, catharsis, and healing. Though, it is hard to say if anyone ever reads the other entries. Nonetheless, it is an interesting practice. And clearly, many people come into this room, to escape the rush and hubbub of traveling in a crowded airport, to escape the cramped quarters of a full airplane, to escape the noise and malodorous smells of fellow travelers. So a quiet, freshly floral scented, and preciously dimmed room with soft lighting coming up from the floor and illuminating images of lily-pads and alpine meadows is surely a welcome experience.

As you can see in this photo, the mural of a pond along with other natural-looking fixtures of plants and meditative stones bends into a soft crescent style room. Benches and chairs form a ring around the back edges of the small chamber, while two sizable pillows or meditation-style mats are situated at center, for those wanting to practice their spiritual acts, meditations, prayers, or simply relax amid the quietude of the nearly soundproof room. Even just finding myself examining the room, walking about in circles, almost gawking at its subtle hidden placement amid the rush in this airport was rather relaxing. I kept looking at the polished floors and the two mats, and the lily pads, and the glowing light. And with each passing meditative glance, I discovered something new and intriguing. In fact, I almost tripped over a prayer rug!

What was interesting about the prayer rug was that it was embroidered with an image of a Middle Eastern City, which looked like Jerusalem to me. But I'm still not clear on this. But it was intricately made with details flourished on all four edges. It was clear, however, that is was a prayer rug, and just above, you may be able to see it faintly in this photo, was an orientation marker telling practitioners which way to find Mecca or the Western Wall or any other holy spot on the globe, depending on your desire, background, or preference.

Now to the books again! Of course, when I looked at this fine grouping of books, I was at first gleeful (really!--I just wanted to use that word, of course) and amazed by the assortment of texts. Bibles, Tanakhs, Qur'ans, the Bhagavad Gita, and more. All standing next to each other like little Kindergartners, each being asked to "play nicely together." I felt like it was an evocation of what the world should be: a big playground of multiplicity; it seems to work in theory, but not even close in practice. But perhaps that's what it is anyway: a big playground of religious diversity, embodied for the most part through disparate, often obscure and oblique texts from thousands of years ago, which convey their own sense of reality or realities, which in turn are understood, imagined, and interpreted by the human billions across and around the world as right, just, tempered, and ultimately true. Yet, for us right here and right now, in this little tiny room casting off blue light, they sit here tirelessly and calm, on shelves, bothering no one, saying nothing till a reader or tourist comes by.

Perhaps my favorite juxtaposition was the image of The Book of Mormon along side mixed bags (literally!) of prayer beads and rosaries. What combinations! Something akin to what you might find at the prizes booth at the county fair. These items certainly appear to be on display, as if they were for sale, rather than for use. Nevertheless, it does appear that The Book of Mormon was at least leafed through, with its corners upturned and first few pages soiled by finger-dirt. As for the rosaries and prayer beads, they looked as shiny and clean as plastic solemnity and religious artifacts should be!

Now for my parting image, I leave you with this ensemble of interfaith wares and gadgetry. Certainly, you've seen the books, their positioning next to one another, and their availability for the wandering contemporary mendicant. Look too at the prayer shawl and bag containing other accoutrements to the left. It is amazing how many items are occupying this one little space. Many of the world's religions confined to a corner of a darkened room, in a small airport, in upstate New York. It's nice that someone has put together this collection of religious multiplicity. Perhaps it is one of the few places on earth that such marks of religion get along: the books and utensils of religion, holding the words or Word of goodness and truth. A brief pause and reflection on the animate and inanimate, however you envision "the book" in the world. Just watch out when people get involved.

1 comment:

  1. I love these sentences you wrote:

    "Many of the world's religions confined to a corner of a darkened room, in a small airport, in upstate New York. It's nice that someone has put together this collection of religious multiplicity. Perhaps it is one of the few places on earth that such marks of religion get along: the books and utensils of religion, holding the words or Word of goodness and truth."

    And who would imagine that so much could be written about books in airports?