“Every other week someone says that books are dead or dying, that…the obliteration of distinguished literary houses and imprints in the age of the corporate takeover [is] synonymous with the inevitable disappearance of books. The hearse followers mournfully announce that no one reads these days, can’t read, won’t read….
The book is small, lightweight and durable, and can be stuffed in a coat pocket, read in the waiting room, on the plane. What are planes but flying reading rooms?”
—E. Annie Proulx, speaking at the 1994 PEN/Faulkner Awards
As a stewardess, I am of two minds about the PEN/Faulkner Awards. PEN/Faulkner is a more frantic crush than Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Frankfurt Book Fair, Whitbread or Booker time, or even the week of the Lila Acheson Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Grants Reception. Peak PEN/Faulkner has me on twenty-four-hour call for added flights; although that spells overtime pay and a chance to serve the public above and beyond the routine nurturing of airborne literacy, there are moments when the phone awakens me from a nap in my uniform and I must repair my maquillage, hail a taxi for JFK, and be courteous to avid readers and writers whose boarding passes are printed with ink-blurs of indecipherable bibliographical data and call numbers, conflicting reservations for rare editions, expired or nonapplicable guarantees of free upgrade to Belles-Lettres Class—truly, at such moments I almost wish for a job where I might help people just by twisting open Smirnoff miniatures or dispensing headsets for a first-run feature or a program of rock oldies.
But I love being a stewardess. It is the stewardess’s privilege to hand out the little magnifying glasses for the compact one-volume OED stowed above each seat in the overhead bin, and then to stand in the aisle of the main cabin and demonstrate emergency procedures for consulting that incomparably useful work if need be. The stewardess is in on the romance of flight’s arcane traditions and lingo; the pilot greets her with his usual line—“Coffee, tea, or McPhee?”—and she can hear, beneath the ritual laconic tease, reference to a shared code of research standards, as well as respect for the stewardess herself, a fellow professional trusted to honor the superstition about never flying with a copy of the Scottish Play on board.
Such superstitions derive from a morbid awareness of d—h which is, I suppose, an occupational disorder and which perhaps also accounts for aircraft passengers’ affinity for literature. Few, it would seem, desire to plunge to a briny or fiery d—h while reading ephemera or trash. In any case, it is part of my job to be conscious of danger. Lately, stewardesses have all been taught how to conduct a body search, for even the most elaborate security-gate technology has proved unable to detect the John Grisham novels that occasionally slip through in defiance of CAB regulations. I must also keep a trained eye on the type of passenger who restlessly changes seats; unexplained movement from genre to…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.