Practically Marzipan: Books on a plane

I am amazed I managed to get through this without screaming about getting these motherfucking books off this motherfucking plane.

Anyway. An edited version of this appeared in the New Indian Express yesterday.


Recently I read of a rumour (hopefully proved false by now) that passengers on flights bound for the US would not be allowed to carry anything on their laps during the last hour of the journey in order to prevent terrorism. Among the dangerous items banned from passengers’ laps were books.

Packing books for a journey is a complex and involved process. For one thing, there’s the time factor to be considered. How long is your trip, and how much time will you, realistically, have to read? If you’re like me, you will vastly over-estimate this and carry twice as many books as are actually required, but it’s good to have a figure to base things on.

There’s also the question of packing relevant reading. Until relatively recently, when I went on holiday I would try to carry books about the place I was visiting – historical fiction or crime thrillers or anything that would be familiar with the geography of the place. It took a few years for me to realize that this didn’t always work. Some places simply that interesting, and even when they are you still risk an informational overload that could leave you craving a bad romance novel. The situation is made worse for me because I’m actually a terrible packer, and far too prone to wanting to carry everything I might need – I have a pair of formal shoes that have traveled halfway across the world with me on the pretext that I might need them. They have never been worn. With books, my instinct is to fill my bags with related and unrelated literature, thus (in theory, at least) preparing myself for every eventuality.

At this point constraints of space and weight come into play. I know through long experience exactly how many trade paperbacks can be stuffed into a regular backpack – subtract four if the backpack also contains a laptop. Whether it is wise or healthy to carry a big bag of books on ones back is of course another matter entirely. But the alternative is to put the books in one’s checked-in baggage and airlines are unfairly harsh about those of us who wise to transport mini-libraries around with us. (I could, perhaps, just about avoid having to deal with airline baggage allowances if it wasn’t for the fact that I buy books compulsively when in other cities).

Once on a plane, the books you’ve carried with you become tremendously important. You don’t want to carry anything that will make you cry – I made two businessmen seated next to me quite uncomfortable once when I carried a particularly weepy book on a flight. Equally, you don’t want something that will make you laugh too much or cause the stewards to think you require medical assistance (P.G Wodehouse is not a valid excuse for disrupting a flight). And it must be absorbing enough to keep you absorbed, since if you glance away from the page you run the risk of being sucked into conversation with the guy next to you, who wishes to tell you all about his son in England who is well settled and unmarried and possessed of every virtue. Do not look away from the page. If books are a weapon in this case, they’re a defensive one.


The book that made me cry and so disturbed those unfortunate men was Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, which I wrote about here. I think my most inspired choice of themed books was on a few days’ trip to Turkey, when I carried Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, and Teresa Tomlinson’s The Moon Riders (also a tear jerker, though).

6 Comments to “Practically Marzipan: Books on a plane”

  1. We all know books can be dangerous but I don't think that was meant as a physical descriptive…

    I once read about a monk who had secret pockets sewn into his robes for the express purpose of stealing books from libraries he was allowed the honour of visiting. I borrowed the idea once when flying, stuffing my overcoat with books until it was too heavy for the overhead bin- but thanks to that my checked luggage passed the weight limit. Alas, that was before you had to take off coats, belts and shoes in order to go through security.

    It was also before the luggage weight was cut. I got a scare last year- between my arrival and my departure, the airline decided to change translatlantic luggage allowance from two 20 kg bags (used to be 30 only a few years ago!!!) to ONE 20 kg bag. I mean…what??

    Then, recently, on a flight between LA and San Francisco, I was told that for take-off and landing, the camera I was holding in my lap had to be stowed. And I was told so with a frown.

    That's something that has never happened to me before. I don't know what the reasoning behind the demand was, though if they were worried I would turn the (digital) camera on during landing when all electronic devices are supposed to be off, I have to plead guilty. I don't believe my camera can crash the plane, and love taking photos out of the window…

  2. Read this one in NIE. Also, read the 'Yell for Language' today.
    I personally prefer carrying just one book while flying and buy books wherever I go.

    Another thing I prefer to do is to give off the books which I am sure I will not have a look again.

    Anyways, I just wanted to say that your blogs are interesting read. Keep writing!!

  3. you stole my sentiments and worded them!

    I sometimes pack books for long roadtrips too and sometimes when i don't like my company.

  4. But what if the airplane has an inflight entertainment system that plays Hannah Montana and Sonny with a Chance?

  5. I liked Kamila Shamsie and Eco on a really long flight. Good enough to keep me occupied.

  6. Madzia – At some point I must rant at you over how, despite staying within luggage limits I had to pay Virgin Airlines £250 a few months ago.
    I feel I should disapprove of this monk, but I really do not.

    Karthik – Thank you! But how do you pick one book?
    There are very few things which I can be sure I'll never read again, sadly.

    Idlichutney – I always like my own company – it can be a huge distraction.

    Aadisht – This is true. But the nice man with the well-settled son in London managed to interrupt screenings of Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging AND Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. I do not think the Disney channel would have deterred him.

    Lonelyeyes – I had a terrible time with Eco on a train once. He's a fine author, but the book needed a lot more attention than the Shatabdi allowed me to give it.

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