As I began reading Christopher Schaberg’s The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight (2011)–a book I’d already thumbed through on several occasions, and one that I knew quite a bit about after editing a colleague’s thorough review some years before–I was struck by just how much the opening pages caused me to think about how much I’d been lapsing into extended reveries about airports over the preceding months. Schaberg, the critic-laureate of airport studies, lays out strategies for the semiotic analysis of airports, a task which he performs quite consciously and most intriguingly. What struck me upon reading his book from the beginning, with the attention that it demands, is just how much I (and, I suspect, many of you) have been doing some of the things mentioned in the book, in some cases for years, but usually in an unconsciously selective or ambient way. Like most of the best books of criticism, Schaberg’s reveals the layers, and probes the depths, of the things that most of us skim, take for granted, or ignore.
Airports and the culture of flight are ripe for textual analysis. Roland Barthes’s “The Jet-Man” is a widely known example of a “reading” of a figure that, characteristically of this type of discourse, uncovers an inherent contradiction in this new type of person (in this case, the pilot-hero is at-once a man of speed and the ultimate in repose and retarded movement). Or, consider interpretations of two monumental architectural works by Eero Saarinen (carried out in Schaberg’s book, but familiar to a wide audience because of their canonized, iconic pedigree). His TWA Flight Center (1962), a stand-alone concourse at JFK Airport, and his main terminal of Dulles Airport (also 1962), are as much abstract evocations of dynamic bird-shapes as they are post-Bauhaus public spaces that actualize ascendant ideas about concrete, steel, light, and the outward projection of power and plenty.