by Karen Flett
reviewed by CBR Editor
A recent trend in publishing has been the sort of smorgasbord book, the Book of Many Names, the book not easily classifiable…stumping bookstore owners whose rows and sections are so neatly arranged, named and codified. Where to put a book that is, at once, a coffee table book filled with glossy photos of a fetching icon of the American obsession with road travel…an illustrated technical manual (sort of) of the namesake vehicle…a history of it and, through and through, a poem of adoration by some of its most ardent admirers? The Airstream is the protagonist here, but the supporting cast is enormous. Its designers, its makers and, as mentioned, many current devotees of the Airstream and the life it offers here all have their voices heard. This is America, frozen in time. The life it promises appeals to the nomad within us all, the restless and adventure-seeking American spirit. The great American road trip is perfectly expressed in the almost spacecraft-inspired design of this enduring classic of the highway and the campsite. Don’t call it an ‘RV’, and certainly not a trailer. Sacrilege! The brand title itself has become the nominal term for it. There are RVs and trailers...and there is the Airstream.
The author made a bold and, I think, creative choice in deciding to synthesize so many different elements together in her book, rather than choosing to focus on a single theme.
The author, Karen Flett, has more to offer us than scads of calendar-quality glossies and construction blueprints. She’s shrewd enough to perceive that while the Airstream has endured for over seven decades as an image of pure America road romance…it has also enjoyed a surge in popularity as part of the growing ‘tiny house’ trend that has spawned several TV shows and its own cottage (pun intended) industry all across the continent. While some might point to Japan and parts of Europe as being the progenitors of tiny living, whether implanted or transportable, no one would try to wrest from the Airstream its role in that growing industry, or its impact thereon.
The author made a bold and, I think, creative choice in deciding to synthesize so many different elements together in her book, rather than choosing to focus on a single theme. This book was undoubtedly an enormous undertaking but, I deem, it was a labor of love, and that labor reflects the people she invites to help tell her story. Technical drawings, detailed historical accounts of the Airstream, its production and its history share page space alongside personal stories, accompanied by photos, of devoted owners who have used the canvas of the Airstream’s surprisingly spacious interior to illustrate their own aesthetic…the tiny home trend and the Airstream’s place in it, et al. She also offers nuts-and-bolts material such as a listing, near the back, of events nation-wide that Airstream owners might wish to attend, to share just one example. The work Karen Flett put it into this book, and the adoration of those she includes within its pages is obvious and at times makes it compelling reading. I could’ve read a lot more of the personal narrative segments, as promised by the book’s title. I said that I admired the author’s risk in attempting to entwine these different strands into a single narrative, but I also felt that the choice to do so can make Living the Airstream Life difficult to absorb. As a rule, readers tend to crave continuity in a book. This one felt, in parts, disjointed and didn’t always flow from one part to the next. There was a feeling that I didn’t know exactly what I was reading, or if it even was ‘reading’ or just flipping through a compendium of illustrations and pictures, a kind of exceedingly thorough promotional brochure. Maybe I was trying too hard to find a typical book here, and instead perhaps this volume should be treated more as a sort of manual, something to consult, or enjoy for different reasons and at different times. Pick it up, put it down, pick it up again later, and repeat. Many have tried this alchemy of blending disparate narrative and visual elements and few have succeeded. I felt that Flett has done better than most, and overall Living the Airstream Life is worth it if you’re a fan of the Airstream, or of American travel narratives, the tiny home trend, or just a history of American ingenuity and creativity as encapsulated in the sleek, chrome elegance of the Airstream itself.
Published by Harper Design 160 pp