Round-Down: Book Readings In the Sky

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Southwest Airlines recently started holding book readings on their flights. The airline has a history of bringing spontaneous and entertaining events aboard: there was at one point an Imagine Dragons appearance, and once even a wedding. The involved writers are compensated in free airfare, the passengers with free readings–which might seem like a win-win from a comfortable and grounded distance.

But, as senior Slate editor Jonathan Fischer writes in his article, “Southwest Airlines Has Figured Out How to Make Your Flight Even More Fun: Book Readings at 35,000 Feet,” a sudden book reading at 8:40 AM might not be such a great idea. “I’m generally of the opinion that there are no good surprises on an airplane,” Fischer writes. “But Southwest hopes that these ‘in-flight activations’ will make their customers’ days a little brighter.”

Near the end of the piece, Fischer writes: “But surely Southwest is worried about annoying passengers? ‘There’s always the opportunity for that,’ [Southwest community engagement coordinator] Boller says, but she maintains it hasn’t happened yet.” What strikes me about this new book reading venture is that it is less offered than mandatory, and that regardless of the quality of the work there’s something that is, while certainly well-intentioned, a bit off about forcing participation in celebration of anything.

Just two days ago I returned from AWP Minneapolis, where I heard some phenomenal writers read their work. I have the great memory of walking to the “Paris Is Still Burning” reading. I was late to the reading–my own mistake, having been caught up in conversation–and recall seeing the windows grey with condensation, the silhouettes of bodies pressed against the glass. The place was packed, with incredible writers and thinkers eager to share there work, and readers eager to hear it.

This got me thinking about the role of the reading at large, and made me question why I felt such instant hesitation about these airline readings. Writers deserve to have their work heard by those interested in or at least open to hearing it. But when that organic willingness, that eagerness, isn’t there, the whole exchange stops holding the shine of a reading. I suspect a lot of the magic is lost. And both parties run the risk of awkward disappointment: the writer reading to an uninterested or even annoyed party, the listeners strongarmed into their status as such.

I think it’s great Southwest wants to keep its passengers entertained and offer something fun, something new, but I hope nothing is cheapened at the expense of this entertainment.