I’ve been back in New York City for almost a week now, and for once I seem to have mostly dodged jetlag. Perhaps traveling through different zones on a regular basis makes it easier to adjust to different clocks. Over the last year I’ve travelled quite a lot, even by my standards: I’ve been in 32 different places in 12 countries on 4 continents. In order to get to most of these places, I’ve had to spend more than 140 hours—which is nearly six entire days—in flight. And while those 140+ hours were still technically in a time zone somewhere, psychologically they feel outside the grid.
I’ve often thought about time spent on flights as the most “free.” This might seem completely crazy since being on an airplane is so physically restrictive, but it is the only time that I am completely unreachable via email, phone calls, text messages, tweets, Skype, Facebook, etc. and so is everyone else around me. (I’m also presumably unreachable during concerts, but unfortunately folks who’ve forgotten to turn off their phones aren’t.) It is a real luxury to have a huge chunk of undisturbed time, and over the years I’ve taken advantage of this interlude to read large books that I otherwise would never get around to.
Back in January, during a flight from Paris to New York, I attempted to read Mathias Énard’s Zone, a 500 page novel published in 2009 which consists of only one sentence and therefore begs to be read in a single sitting. I’ve previously written here about merely getting one quarter of the way through before sleep got the better of me. But I’ve remained fascinated by this book because it aspires to the same condition as listening to music; it requires whoever experiences it to submit to someone else’s clock. (I once heard that Edgar Allan Poe eschewed novels in favor of short stories because short stories tend to be read in a single sitting and he wanted to have control over the reader’s time.) Or course nowadays, even music is rarely experienced without interruption; most people engage in other activities as they listen, and the music that they listen to is primarily on recordings which enable the ability to start and stop and skip at will. Curiously, how most people experience music is very similar to the way most people read books.
Anyway, since returning from France, I couldn’t figure out a way to carve out the requisite time for Zone. I tend to read about 30 pages per hour which means that a standard novel of 300 pages takes me about 10 hours. I was able to read the quarter of Zone that I completed somewhat faster than that, but I figured that I would still need at least 10 uninterrupted hours of reading time. I had the perfect opportunity flying round trip from Hong Kong two months ago (each way is a little over 16 hours), but instead I devoted it to reading—though not in its entirety—David Foster Wallace’s 1000+ page Infinite Jest, which I managed to finally finish shortly before heading to Greece. Being able to get through Wallace’s gargantuan multilayered narrative nevertheless encouraged me to once again attempt to tackle what is perhaps the most impossible reading assignment I have ever given myself. So I brought Zone to Greece.
Since I was doing a red eye from JFK to Istanbul to connect with my flight to Athens, reading Zone on the way there seemed doomed to failure. I didn’t even try. Instead I watched several movies and read a substantial portion of Jason Weiss’s fascinating Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disc’, The Most Outrageous Record Label in America, which is my idea of light reading. I planned to save Zone for the return flight from Istanbul to New York, which was during daytime hours. I figured I needed to start at the beginning again, in order to fully experience the flow, so I did. This time, however, I only managed to get about 50 pages in; despite the uninterrupted time, there were just too many other distractions: flight announcements, meals, the person directly in front of me leaning back his chair to the point that I was barely able to hold the book in my hands, etc.
I’ve concluded that it actually might be impossible for me to read this book the way I had originally intended to. But it has also made me extremely grateful that it is so much easier to listen to most music uninterrupted.