By Alastair Gordon (Metropolitan, 320 pages)
You have to admire Alastair Gordon's pluck. With Naked Airport he has drummed up 300 pages about a structure that many Americans view as an outer layer of purgatory: those bright lights and security checks, the frozen-yogurt stands, the continuous blare of CNN. Before air travel became routine, airports were stripped-down, humble affairs. In Baghdad, Basra and Cairo, they doubled as outposts of the British Empire. In the American heartland, they existed largely as fuel stopovers for cross-country flights. Flying was a dangerous undertaking through the 1920s. "Of the fourteen hundred American passengers who flew in 1928," Gordon writes, "fourteen died: one in a hundred." Until investors like Henry Ford began pumping money into aviation, it was not entirely clear that air travel would take off at all. But it did, and the genius of Naked Airport is its portrayal of how these way stations changed, from the muddy airfields of the 1920s to their heydays in the 1960s and beyond. The liveliest bits concern the midcentury period, when I.M. Pei and Eero Saarinen competed to make Kennedy Airport beautiful. Later, he bemoans how hijackings, cost-cutting and unforeseen volumes of passengers spawned the atrocities we pass through today. In charting this evolution, Gordon has written the ideal book to take on your next trip. As long as you can find a quiet place to read.