Monday, June 14, 2010

Are Plane Reads Better Because You Read Them On A Plane?

My friend Mike and I have a theory: No matter how much you'd normally hate the genre, actors or story, if you watch a movie on a plane, it is automatically 1.5 to 2 stars better than it would have been if you'd watched it in your living room. By way of example, on a recent London to O'Hare flight, I found myself totally engrossed in the Zac Efron vehicle 17 Again. Pathetic, right? Another example: Mike, who's forgotten more about movies than most people will ever know and who frequently watches really obscure foreign language and artsy films, admitted to being moved to tears at the end of the laughably bad Jamie Lee Curtis/Lindsay Lohan film Freaky Friday. Enough said.

The reason for this is easily explainable: When you're trapped on a plane and have nothing better to do, of course the movie's going to look good in comparison to staring at the back of the seat in front of you.

I'd never really connected this theory to books before, but now that I think about it, it certainly stands to reason that the same better-on-a-plane phenomenon is true. Most people identify the "plane read" with a low-concentration, breezy book. Of course I would agree with that, and despite my book snobbishness, I enjoy the occasional genre fiction at 35,000-feet as well. But there is still a spectrum of quality, even among plane reads. So does reading a bad low-brainer on a plane make it better than if you'd read it at your corner Starbucks?

I first started thinking about this a few months ago as I was plowing through the second book in Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp series, The Third Option. Judging in retrospect, by just about any objective measure, it's a bad book — it's poorly written and the plot is preposterous. But on the plane I got about two-thirds of the way through the book, and was totally lovin' it! When I picked it up the next day laying on my couch, I skimmed and laughed (at it, not with it) and laughed and skimmed until I was finished. I couldn't believe it was the same book. It was as if Plane Greg had tricked Couch Greg into looking forward to reading it again.

Another example is Jonathan Tropper's How To Talk To A Widower. Now, this book actually is solid, but the plane elevated it to a level whereby I literally got choked up a few times and laughed out loud more than twice — which is totally out of character for me, a rather even-keel reader. The Plane Theory worked to turn this book from a good, readable novel to a novel practically on par with Don freakin' Quixote in my recirculated-air-addled mind.

So, what's your take? Anyone else noticed this phenomenon? Have there been books in which you were totally absorbed on a plane, but which were complete bores on the ground?


  1. I get you! I saw 17 Again on the plane and I was like - wow...this is actually kinda watchable. That Zac Efron is quite the charmer.

    And yeah, I am ALWAYS crying at movies I see on planes -- BUCKET LIST -- when on the ground I am a strict non-crier.

  2. Generally, no. I get MORE irritated with books and movies on a plane. I'm just generally uncomfortable and the coffee's never good and someone leans their chair so far back I can see their feet and I'm just crabby. Boo to books and movies on a plane! I just want to nap.

  3. Haha! This is hilarious. I subconsciously knew the concept but had never elevated it to a theory in my own mind. I have used it to force myself to read books which would otherwise forever remain on my TBR list

  4. I watched When in Rome on a flight the whole way through, so definitely agree on the movie front!

    On the book front, I take exception to your implication that genre fiction is by its very nature "breezy." This actually annoys me on many levels, I admit, as so many people act as though classics were always classics and were not genre fiction when they first came out. Just because you aren't read Dostoevsky, that doesn't mean you aren't reading something with depth and meaning.

    Leaving that aside, though, I am not sure about my plane reads. I usually take books on the plane that I have wanted to read otherwise. I suppose some of them are light reads, but some are definitely not. However, the last book I was reading on a plane, I knew even then I wouldn't finish as I was not in the least engaged. I think I have more ADD with reading on a plane, though, as I wear glasses when flying and sometimes it gives me a headache to read in them.

  5. Interesting. It might be because I am in planes so much, but I wouldn't agree with this. Could also be because my plane reads are just whatever I want - often non-fiction or random literary fiction. I find they usually hold up. I do get more engrossed though than usual as there are really no distractions. That might actually be what makes them seem better, the fact that your brain (or mine at least) completely shuts out everything else, more so than if I'm at home.

  6. Hmmmm...interesting topic. I will have to put this to the test later this year on my flight to Tampa!

  7. At home, I have hundreds of books to choose from, but, on the plane, I might, on a good day, have four. This is important.

    I'm glad you brought this up because at the end of this week I WILL BE TAKING AN EIGHT HOUR PLANE RIDE. Yes, eight hours. I must come prepared.

  8. hahaha great post! i completely agree although i can't lie and have to admit that i do really enjoy a lot of terrible writing (matthew reilley for example) either up in the air or on the couch/in bed/waiting in line/while cooking dinner etc. perhaps the plane thing has something to do with all that recycled oxygen messing with the brain?

  9. @Lenore - Ha! Yeah, if The Bucket List choked you up, The Plane Effect was in full effect!

    @Jane Doe - Yeah, I totally understand there are a significant number of folks who hate flying and just want to knock themselves out before take-off and wake up when they land...

    @Kathy - That's a good point - planes are a great opportunity to knock out books you may never otherwise get to.

    @Aarti - Sorry to have irritated you, but I whole-heartedly stand by the claim that genre fiction is, by nature, breezy. Janet Evanovich and James Patterson and Nora Roberts and Vince Flynn and John Grisham (etc...) fit into a very specific category (thriller, mystery, romance) that is discernibly not literary fiction. Hence, genre. And if they weren't breezy (which they have to be to appeal to a mass audience), the alternative is clunky - and then they're not just genre fiction, they're BAD genre fiction. I daresay the idea of genre vs. literary fiction has changed just a tad since Dostoevsky's day. I'll eat my shirt if Vince Flynn is ever considered a classic.

    @Amy - Oh sure, I agree that you shut everything else out and are less distracted - but that's because there IS nothing to distract you, except the possible crying baby or an overly announcy pilot. So, yeah, it's the concentration factor - whether a plane or not - that makes a book better. I'd agree with that!

    @Julie P - Good luck!

    @readerbuzz - Ah, 8 uninterrupted reading hours - I'm jealous! ;) Have a great trip...

    @mummazappa - Ha! Good theory about the recycled oxygen. Could be!

  10. I'm like that with movies - I think I actually watched that Babylon A.D. movie with the bald guy & went "hmm was pretty good actually, wonder if there will be a sequel?' What was I thinking?!

    I agree with the weird oxygen thing.

    However, I find the faults of a book to be more glaringly obvious when reading on a plane because I'm all uncomfortable & trying to avoid listening to crying babies etc. So I generally stick to movies on a plane, even though it would be the opposite on the ground.

  11. Dear Greg-
    I enjoyed reading your comments about airplane reading. Actually, I have a different version of the same experience. I enjoy writing on international flights. Usually I drink a lot of champagne and when I look back at what I've done, I am often amused by what flights of fancy occur in that space.

    Warms, Cym

  12. Hm, maybe this is why I liked Eat, Pray, Love so much more than the rest of my book club (and I'm usually one of the more critical members).

    My mother's best friend and her husband were once flying back to the US from the UK, and he absolutely hated his book and yet couldn't stand to look at the back of the seat. She ripped her mass market in half, as she was half-way through, and gave him the first half. I thought that was a brilliant if unorthodox solution, and now I really wonder what his original book was if it sucked that badly.

  13. How to talk to a Widower is on my To-Be-Read pile...Heard it's great! Following you from the Book Blogger Hop!

  14. I am in complete agreement about your movie philosophy. I remember thinking that Angels & Demons was spectacular, and I bordered on irate when they cut off the movie five minutes before the end to land the plane (The Horror!)... When re-watching with my husband a few months later, I wondered what I might have been smoking during the prior viewing.

    I think that you might be on to something. I'll test out your book theory on Monday when I head out of town.

  15. Great post. And yes, I've totally noticed this about movies on planes. Some of the best movies I've ever seen have been on planes, and they were movies I wouldn't even bother to watch otherwise.

    Can't wait to read "How to Talk to a Widower". Maybe I'll do so on my cross country flight in July.