The Mystery of Holiday and Airport Reading

Americans have coined the term "airport reading" for books that are easy, trivial reads. Here in the more densely populated Europe, a more illustrative term would be "train reading". The phenomenon's the same, though: Just check any bookstore in a train station, and you'll find that the books they have on offer are easier reads than the ones on display in your average bookstore. A related phenomenon is holiday reading - again, these are books that are easier than the avearage book.

It is somewhat puzzling that one should choose easier reading for travel and holidays, as has been noted by quite a few authors over the years. For example, Andrew Gelman writes: "I’ve never really understood the idea that a 'beach read' should be something light and fluffy. On the beach, you can relax, you have the time to get into anything." Likewise, I find a silent long-distance train carriage the ideal reading environment, superior even to a silent home. (Admittedly, not all train carriages are silent.) So why should station's book stores carry more trivial matter?

I guess this way of looking at things is an instance of the within-between fallacy: You look at your own reading choices on the beach or train and conclude that beach and train reading should be harder, not easier, books. But actually, a different kind of selection is going on. Beach and train reading is mainly reading by people who otherwise don't read a lot. That is, we are not talking of cases in which an easy book is chosen instead of a harder one, but those in which a book is chosen instead of none. Naturally, such choices will be slanted towards the easy-to-consume. Regular readers actually take the demanding stuff on trains and holidays.

But that seems to make the wrong prediction about the books on offer in the station's book store: we should expect the station's store to carry books that are about as demanding as those in a regular store; furthermore, we expect some of the really tough stuff on offer in the station. Yet they don't seem to sell much Joyce and Kant there.

I think this is explained by the fact that people who read regularly typically have quite a number of unread books at home, and will bring them. In contrast, people who don't read a lot think: "Got four hours to kill on the train, will pick up a thriller before departure." The train station's book store is hence dominated by the tastes of those who don't read regularly.

This suggests that these stores have been, and will be, hurt a lot by the new option of bringing your laptop to watch movies on it.

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