Three decades ago on my first parent-free forays into international travel, my reading choices were governed more by what might be deemed worthy and worldly than what I might actually have enjoyed. The 1980s equivalent of a kale and quinoa diet.
My bookshelves still bear evidence of this literary bias. Open a book and you will possibly find a fading boarding pass between the pages. Souvenirs of reading attempted on flights—and in some cases airlines—long past. Yet among all that carefully curated content, the only book I can specifically remember reading on a journey is the novel that I chose to accompany me on a solo flight to Hong Kong in 1988.
It didn’t even make it home, but I remember that Savages, a pulpy page-turner by Shirley Conran, bore the gold titles and near-naked cover imagery that declared it to be a true airport novel. Like others in its genre, it didn’t try to make me smarter, or more sophisticated; its role was to absorb and entertain me for the hours of waiting and delay that travel inevitably entails. It did its job admirably.
Of course 1988 was a different world in air travel. In-flight entertainment options were limited to whatever was put on the screen six rows in front of you and whatever you brought with you. Books.
Airport bookstores were geared around this too. Rows and rows of paperback thrillers, crime and legal Fiction, historical fiction. Absorbing stories, unlikely to bother the long-lists of literary prizes, but a cocoon against the indignities and incarceration of long-haul flights.
Like most things, it sounds better if you say it in French. Romans de gare (literally ‘railway station novels’) were built for travel, the literary equivalent of travel-sized shampoo. You’re not likely to employ them in your day-to-day life, but the act of traveling requires that you adapt to circumstances, in reading as in bathing. Horses for courses, novels for travels.
But if you look at the shelves of airport bookstores now, you’ll notice two things. Firstly, books face much greater competition for space. Phone chargers, toys, electronics, games, a dozen varieties of bottled water, lottery tickets and more squeeze the books into a few shelves on the back wall. And here you’re more likely to find Man Booker Prize winners rubbing shoulders with self-help books—many with a get-rich bent—than you are to find the traditional airport novels.
In this world of the eight-second attention span that has been gifted to us by our devices (and if you’ve read this far, congratulations on staying the course), have we become better at digesting ‘serious’ literature at altitude? Unlikely.
Although in-flight you are isolated in a way that is otherwise rare in this hyper-connected world—an aloneness that some believe responsible for the higher incidence of crying when watching movies on a plane—it’s no time to try challenging reading. You will not get through Finnegans Wake on a plane.
You may indeed have your own patch of space, abundant time and not a whole lot else you’re allowed to be doing, but reading on a plane is a bit like reading in the hospital. Every three minutes someone or something will interrupt you. And for most of us, that environment is not conducive to the more ‘worthy’ fiction that airport booksellers are now offering us.
So why the change? Perhaps it is us encouraging the booksellers to stock what we want to want, rather than what we do want? In this selfie-conscious age, image is everything and perhaps the reading matter tucked into our seat pocket has become part of that at the expense of a rollicking read. This would be a shame.
Perhaps the airport novel has just gone underground, hidden in the coding of luggage-friendly e-books which offer readers privacy to devour titles from Minecraft to Mein Kampf without their armrest co-tenant being any the wiser? Also a shame.
With evidence mounting that we have lower recall of the plots of stories read on devices, we may be short-changing ourselves on valuable travel aide-memoire in favor of convenience. And on reflecting on a life of travel, it is the tiny recollections—a mass-market novel so absorbing on a flight nearly 30 years ago—that unlock otherwise forgotten finer details of a day far away.
Like remembering the blue and gold of the cover that last time you saw it, at the Peng Chau Ferry Pier when you farewelled the car-free island to return to the mayhem of Kowloon. Like your deliberate decision to leave it on a seat in the hope that someone you’d never meet might delight in finding it.
The best of travel is about embracing a range of experiences, putting aside what is familiar to us and opening ourselves to new ideas. It is about accepting that for the duration of your trip, you won’t have coffee exactly the way you like it at home.
Perhaps it is also time to accept—or return to acceptance—the notion that what we read when we travel may be as different from what we read at home as the food is to what we cook at home. It may also be time for us to accept that it’s OK to do something just for fun every now and then. The occasional high-sugar indulgence in a diet of kale and quinoa can’t hurt, can it?
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