A simple American tale of travel and books

At Colorado Springs airport, on my way to Denver:

TSA official at security [pre-check, for that matter]: “We have to search your carry-on, it is suspicious that you have so many books.”

They searched every book.

TC: “Thank you, sir!”

I had fewer books in my carry-on than usual.

The heaviest book I had was Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, which is why I had fewer books than usual.


No wonder you shed at least a tear, maybe more, when landing at Heathrow.

TSA still fails to find smuggled weapons but they sure can find your copy of Tolstoy. One of the worst Republican ideas of the last 20 years.

If I were running things, they'd have dragged him out back and provided him with a wedgie.

Why I do not fly.

Sounds like a scene from Fahrenheit 451

Not necessarily. Staff are trained to notice something unusual. Most travellers who have a book will have a thriller or a romance novel.

Or the official could have been bored. Or curious.

I used to travel with a lot of books...kindle helps for that...

I prefer real books and prefer the hard cover books over paperback. I usually take a few novels with me when I travel and when I'm done with the book I leave it on the airplane or train for someone else.

I was once pulled aside for additional screening because my soap was suspicious.

It was CLE...

sounds soapspicious to me

“Your chair?” Tom asked.
“It was asymmetric. I sat on it for two years, left it at the beach, no one ever stole it, though likely others have sat on it.”
“Did you sell it?”
“Nope. It was a kind of variable possession, the whole time I was bit unsure to be honest.”
“On how it would all end,” Sara said.
“Exactly. On the other hand, it was a sort of on ramp.”
“You never learned to surf?” Tom said.
“I certainly tried.”
“You are a true failure,” Sara said.
“There is catharsis when you enter a highway.”
“So did you feel euphoric when you left it?”
“That’s the thing, it wasn’t a comfortable chair, though it wore a face of absence. It required effort, so I think there was less effect in the end. When no one was around, I sometimes brought it into the ocean, and I felt like a sand castle made of dust and metal. You can’t get that with symmetry, though it abdicates the responsibility.”
“To what?” Tom said.
“The larger creature.”
“An oinky sort of vibe,” he said.
“Or else you would’ve left it the ocean,” Sara said.

Life and Fate by Grossman is excellent, as is Everything Flows. It would be nice if Tyler posted his thoughts on Grossman's Stalingrad once he finishes it.

Antony Beevor's Stalingrad was better.

How about theidor pleiver’s?

Vasily Grossman's Stalingrad is a novel. It is excellent.

The TSA guy had never actually seen a book up close, and he was curious....

I absolutely hate flying. The one nice thing about it, though, is that it's a pretty convenient time to read.

I am of exactly the same opinion.

I find flying so stimulating that I can't focus on reading - at the airport or in the air. Mostly I look out the window and agree with Joan Didion, who once said, "The most beautiful things I've ever seen have all been from planes.

Everything about flying is too marvelous to read through.

I don't necessarily enjoy the TSA lines, but it's an opportunity to observe fellow human beings in their various clothing, classes, occupations and relationships. I appreciate it as a kind of spiritually beneficial leveling activity - people taking off their shoes, as they do at the door to a mosque.

I love studying the passengers in the waiting area who will soon be joining me in the big tube, and once I'm on the plane, I love their solemn, anticipatory faces as they board. As we taxi and take off, I think about what a privilege it is to experience this amazing thrill being rocketed off the earth. And once we're in the sky, I am exhilarated by the whole Louis C.K. shtick: "Sitting in a chair. In the air!" - something that my heroes from Da Vinci and Samuel Johnson fantasized about.

Zooming along at cruising altitude, I snuggle inside myself, contemplating the fact that statistically, even though I am 40,000 feet in the air, I am in one of the safest environments on or off the planet. Even the turbulence is comforting, inasmuch as it demonstrates the miracle of the aircraft's engineering and resilience.

As the sun slants through the windows, I look around at my fellow passengers, seated in rows like people in a church sharing a temporary communion high up over the earth -- a large, random group of strangers elevated above the clouds.

All of this holds true even when there is a crying child - or as on a recent flight to Florida - a whole kindergarten full of joyously noisy children in the back of the plane. A baby crying! Halfway to space!

All of this is made more poignant by my suspicion that this age of popular air travel will curtailed at some point in my lifetime, probably for environmental reasons or as environmentalist or anti-elitist theater.

We fly in a privileged historical moment, where cheap air travel is available to almost everybody. Much as I love reading, I can't bear to miss a minute of it.

Reading and watching the first season of Big Little Lies redeemed the LAX to Melbourne flight.

Leaving LA and arriving in Melbourne ought to be redemption enough!

"We fly in a privileged historical moment, where cheap air travel is available to almost everybody."

This may be true, but it's also been a privileged moment (for Americans) in terms of being able to hop in a car any time and go any place. I.e. the Great American Road Trip, be it the versions of Jack Kerouac or John Steinbeck or Ken Kesey; or the National Lampoon's Vacation version; or even just cruising around town a la American Graffiti or Low Rider.


TC: "I've won a 3-orbit spaceflight around the earth - what books should I read en-route?"

I'm too tall and sit in the non-elite seats. It's torture.

Stalingrad is several books in one and thoroughly enjoyable. Glad to see you're reading it, and looking forward to your comments on it.

Well, you must consider the context - it was Colorado Springs, after all. :)

Perhaps you should restrict your reading list to works like Piketty’s “Capital” and learn a thing or two about the oppressed classes of the world. That way you could
empathize with abused workers like the TSA.


I'm unsure whether links are allowed in these comments: If you'd like to know what Tyler Cowen learned from reading that book, do an internet search for his review in Foreign Affairs.

Should have worn a t-shirt with the graphics:
“I am elitist. I read.”

TSA’s is an exemplary government program - intrusive, expensive, focused on form over substance, an affront to a free people, and as demonstrated by repeated test, highly ineffective in achieving its stated goal.

Also, they have a union, because _______________________________.

Yet amusingly, they do not have the benefits that union membership seems to bring other federal employees.

'Ever since, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, TSA administrators have taken this to mean that the Transportation Security Officer workforce at airports nationwide are not entitled to the full protections given to federal workers under Title 5 of the US Code. In practice, this means airport screeners weren’t put on the federal General Schedule of salaries—so they earn a lot less than most other federal employees. New screeners can make as little as $25,000 to start, which is much less than $15 per hour; the mean annual pay for TSA screeners is is $40,160 ($19.31 per hour), according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Moreover, TSA screeners can be penalized for using sick leave, and can be fired or disciplined for medical problems even if those problems don’t affect their day-to-day work.' https://www.thenation.com/article/tsa-screener-union-rights-shutdown-safety/

The Republicans were way ahead of you back in 2001, and already answered your question about having a union, by setting up the system in a way that being in a union is meaningless. In other words, they have a union due to political theater, much the way their job is basically security theater.

I'm so old. I was flying for business 25 years before 2001.

They were checking carry-on baggage then, too. I vividly remember going through Atlanta Arpt and the white guy next line was found to have a large sheath knife in his attaché case. Seriously. They escorted him off to somewhere. By his natty dress, I assumed he was an engineer.

In the early 90s, I still carried a slide rule as backup for my HP-41C calculator. It was aluminum, in a leather case. A security guard assumed it was a large knife, and it took me quite a while to explain it to him.

TSA got a lot of criticism for demanding that passengers take out their books for special screening back in spring 2017. They even claimed the whole thing was a misunderstanding and it wasn't policy to do that, because the backlash was naturally around citizens having to declare what they read to the government.

Six months later when nobody was paying attention anymore they brought back the practice.

There is some concern that the density of books might obscure objects hidden inside, but in practice TSA has been known even to search magazines -- which, even when they're mostly advertising, tend to be far less thick than they used to be.

I am surprised Cowen hasn't been arrested in an airport since he is the Johnny Appleseed of books - he discards (i.e., leaves) books in airport terminals among other places. Cowen, being opposed to alcohol, might be offended if he were referred to as the johnny Appleseed of books: Johnny brought hard apple cider to the frontier.

Is this because you can hide cash in between the pages?

Ha! How do you think he transports his Bitcoin key?

Maybe I read this wrong, but it sounds like Tyler is flying from Colorado Springs to Denver?

Seems like an awfully short trip, I’d be suspicious as well :)

The traffic jam is horrible between the cities because they're working on I-25. Better to fly or drive east through Franktown.

Seeing people queued up for flights to Springs always bothers me when I'm at DIA, but I guess it makes sense if it's part of a connecting flight (you've already gone through the security parking etc hassle)...same could be true going from Springs to somewhere else via Denver. But if you're going from Denver to Springs and that's it (or vice versa)? That's still madness no matter how bad I-25 is.

But if it’s a connector than why the security? And if the connection was after Denver then why list that as the destination? So it must literally be just Co. Springs to Denver. But, I suppose Dr. Cowen wouldn’t want to rent a car and drive, so fly it is, even if it’s more time in the airport than on the plane

If you fly from your origin to COS, connecting via DEN, it is likely cheaper to just book round-trip the same way home than an open-jaw trip ORIGIN->COS then DEN->ORIGIN. I would just book to DEN in the first place but if you're not renting a car and COS is where you need to work that is probably the best choice.

Right, I sometimes visit Charlottesville VA and it's always a question of whether to use Dulles as my air destination and rent a car and drive to C'ville, or connect to C'ville's small airport. (Shortest TSA lines I've seen in a long while: Due to my first flight back being cancelled, I had to go through security in Charlottesville on two different days. The first day the queue consisted of one person in front of me and one person behind me; the second day the person in front of me turned out to be a TSA agent who was tidying something up.)

So yes, just as someone in Charlottesville might find themselves flying to Dulles for their initial leg, it's highly possible that Tyler was flying from Colorado Springs to Denver in order to connect to his final destination.

But Clay's point still stands: would we call this "on my way to Denver"? Wouldn't most of us say that "I was on my way to XYZ" where XYZ was our final destination?

These nans read 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 as instruction manuals.

There is no explanation for this phenomena, other than Road to Serfdom.

I can't be the only one disappointed there's not a complete list of the books? You terrible tease.

While it's true that Tyler only posts "What I'm Reading" rather than "What I'm Carrying", keep in mind what rayward said: some of the books that Tyler is carrying are books that he will discard. I.e. ones that he decides are not worth reading nor mentioning.

With his "What I'm Reading" posts we are presumably getting a more curated list than what's in his carry-on.

When it comes to TSA: Keep calm and carry-on.

P.S. My sister, who travels a ton for work, pronounces TSA as "teeza". I've always pronounced (and heard) it as "tee ess ay". Is there a group (hyper-frequent flyers?) who pronounce it teeza?

I once had my bag searched because I had many packages of five-spice dried tofu in it. What, the brand I like isn't sold where I live, and it keeps well in the fridge. The TSA officer looked at them, and didn't bother searching the rest of my bag. I asked what was so suspicious about them, and he refused to answer. On reflection, probably because they look like plastic explosives on a scanner.

On hypothesis on paper books. Publishers don't like to send preprints as Kindle. They can't or won't do a deal with Amazon to tie it down to reviewers' specific Kindles, and sending a .mobi file to reviewers directly invites piracy.

If it was all just books of poetry you'd be in solitary now

The TSA is suspicious of Stalingrad since they just watched the Shawshank Redemption. You never know what a good book holds inside... :)

Security Alert at Gate 6, we've got a reader. I repeat, we have a reader. And the ideas are printed on ground up tree carcasses. Obviously, the public education system didn't take with this one.

"Obviously, the public education system didn't take with this one."
Well, duh. It is Colo Spgs. He was home schooled by right-wing religious nutjobs.

Definitely quantitatively challenged. "so many"..."every" = 3 or 300? 36 comments and not one sheds any light on why TSA is interested in books.

The most interesting part about this is that, in Stalingrad, Grossman (at least I think) had to camouflage what he really felt and thought in between all the socialist-realist language he had to write to please the censors. It's kind of fascinating to see what made it through (if memory serves, some of what's in the current edition never made it to the censors). So, to tell the story another way, a traveler comes under suspicion by a government agent for carrying, among other books, a very heavy book that was written under the eyes and suspicion of government agents a generation ago. So it goes.

The most interesting thing about this is Tyler's need to signal that his reading and carrying of so many books is so many standard deviations above the mean of us normal losers that it got the attention of a dumb, working class TSA plebeian.

I didn't realize he was so insecure.

Something to add to your book: “no for-profit corporation ever asked to search my books...”

"Those kids have no idea whatsoever of what went on at Stalingrad. Although I can in no way compare my struggle reading it with that of the Red Army, it has been a very big read. "

I didn’t know you could connect to Denver from Colorado Springs...

Book: a very dangerous weapon.

https://youtu.be/uLt7lXDCHQ0?t=132 "The Bourne Ultimatum - Bourne vs. Desh"

In the Mumbai international airport in India a friend and I were asked why we have "so many books" in our luggage. We answered that we both are teachers so we bought these books in the U.S. He then asked repeated the stupid question: but why so many books? We answered that we need the books for our lectures . A senior official saved the day by telling him there is nothing to be suspicious of. We thanked her profusely and she said " I am glad you brought back books instead of gadgets"

A decade ago a friend was traveling to Canada with his daughter, who was going to a business college and studying Shorthand. They almost missed their flight as her pages of practice were taken to be Arabic. I wonder if somewhere in the Muslim world they would have been stopped because the odd writing would have been taken, accurately enough, to be a kind of code...

Actually, I always thought the attention to books was all about the attempt to bring in cash beyond the limit.

Lol officer: are you carrying drugs inside the books?

Me: Yes drugs only for readers.

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