The Reason Books ‘Hit Different’ At The Airport

"I relied on flight announcements to board, but by the time I looked up at the screen to London, my flight had already left without me!"

Image Credit: Getty Images

Many travellers say books ‘hit different’ in the airport. The reasons range from the lack of demands on your time when you’re travelling to sheer boredom lending itself to better concentration. It’s also possible the type of book you tend to pick up at the airport (read: thrillers and beach reads) has something to do with it...


We’ve discussed the ‘airport hot’ phenomenon (where strangers seem more attractive at the airport than in other settings, due to the sheen of mystery that surrounds them) and the airport beer phenomenon, but what about books? Why is it easier to get engrossed in a book on an uncomfortable boarding gate seat than it is on your couch at home?

Based on an informal poll of friends and colleagues, as well as the good people of Twitter, I have come to believe I am not alone in thinking books, like beers, “hit different” at the airport. Just check out a few of the below statements.

In less than a minute, I was able to pull up multiple variations of the phrase “books hit different at the airport” on Twitter, as well as grand ideas for airport library systems (“what if we could start an airport library system where you borrow books for each leg of your journey and pay a small deposit fee to ensure you return it at the next airport”) and comparisons to other things that hit different (see: “books in the airport = sandwiches at the beach”).

It’s not just book fanatics on Twitter preaching this. Frequent traveller Marta Gutierrez told DMARGE: “I sat down right in front of my gate in the quietest and smallest airport in the south of Spain. The book I was reading (The Girl On The Train) was just getting me so hooked. I relied on flight announcements to board, but by the time I looked up at the screen to London, my flight had already left without me!! I couldn’t believe it.”

DMARGE entertainment writer Bec has had a similar experience on public transport. “I personally find reading good books in a public place a risk,” she said. “If the book’s incredibly engrossing, I lose track of where I am. I have missed my train stop many times because I was so focused on the story; I’ve even cried in a cafe over a sad plot line and then realised I was getting many funny looks because of all the tears…”

This Penguin article from February offers some further reasons why reading hits different in the airport, talking about how airport bookshops narrow your selection for you, “sometimes forcing you to pick up something you might not otherwise.” ­

The article also delves into how limitation can actually be a good thing: “There’s only so much room in your baggage, which means that airport shops naturally force you to be as selective as possible – you can only bring the best, the most page-turning, or the most practical.”

“Human beings love limitations, and airport bookshops are the ultimate mix of restriction and indulgence.”

Penguin

The article also claims: “Travel and books are already bedfellows – books can help us travel both practically (think guidebooks and non-fiction travel-writing) and metaphorically (to other places, eras, and mindsets in fiction and poetry) – and there’s nothing better than planning what to read on holiday, either.”

Passenger reading a book at the airport. Image Credit: Getty Images

Another potential theory is that airports make people feel important (and so everything you do there gets elevated by association). As columnist Shlomo Chaim Kesselman once wrote: “In the airport people carry themselves differently, as if they matter. You can just see it written on their faces as they purposefully wheel suitcases down the terminal, or grab a bite before they board.”

“Even after the trip is over, people indulge in stories of their travel experiences as though they are heroic battle accounts. Trivial stories of brusque flight attendants or stubborn customs officials are blown into epic tales of suspense and intrigue, analyzed blow by blow.”

“Is it because the tickets are so expensive, or because between security, passport control and the flight crew, there are so many people assigned to deal with you? I think not. I think that travel makes people feel important because when travelling, we have a mission, a destination. And that means we matter. Here in the airport, we are going places, literally and figuratively.”

HuffPost, for its part, published an article in 2012 entitled “why do we always take books on vacation,” calling books a “masseuse for the mind” and theorising: “It’s about escape,” The article pointed out that when you travel “there are no phones to answer, no dishes to be done, no difficult questions to answer or things to feel guilty about…” It’s easy to see how this lends itself to stress-free reading.

On the other hand, not everyone finds books “hit different” at the airport. In fact, DMARGE Head Of Operations Kate Perrett completely disagrees.

“I always have something to do at the airport,” she said. “I never read at the airport. What airport are you going to?”

Kate also pointed out it’s not quite the same when you have kids, explaining that when you travel as a family it’s pretty rare to have time to sit down and read, because as soon as you get through security your kids will want to get something to eat (after first checking out every restaurant and cafe on offer), then they’ll want to get a drink at a different place, and then just as you are about to stand up to walk to your boarding gate they’ll want to go to the toilet.

As Jamie Weiss, DMARGE’s car and watch writer points out, there can also be an element of self-consciousness to reading at the airport or on a plane, as you worry other passengers might think it’s “performative” and judge you for what you’re reading, in a way that you simply wouldn’t worry about when it comes to your movie choice – simply because watching a movie is the “normal” thing to do on the plane.

Stephanie Convery, writing for The Guardian, has also tcommented on this. She wrote (speaking about people showing off their holiday reading lists): “Every year, about this time, my Instagram feed fills up with pictures of books. They’re piled somewhere between five and ten inches high, sometimes stacked neatly, sometimes in pleasing disarray.”

“There’s invariably a Booker prize winner or shortlistee in there, along with that novel everyone’s been raving about since August, and a self-help book masquerading as an important comment on our times. Maybe there’s a classic or two, a slender small-press gem, and the next big thing in new release nonfiction.”

Stephanie Convery

She added: “There’s an art to the summer reading stack, of course. It’s balanced in genre, represents diversity of authorship, covers off at least two major preoccupations of the zeitgeist while nodding to the greats of literature past…”

“But I can’t help but wish for a little honesty. Because you’re probably not going to read that 700-page literary prizewinner this summer, are you? And when you flop down on your beach towel/poolside deck chair/the couch after a summer bender, are you really going to pick up that terribly important but probably quite difficult political nonfiction? Or are you just going to flick on the TV and watch Henry Cavill grunt woodenly for three hours?”

Another great insight from her article is the following: “It’s not that those books don’t deserve to be read – the merits of authorship or the contribution to literature made by the worthy writers in these visual reading lists has nothing to do with it. It’s just that like most things we post on social media, the summer reading stack is both aspirational and performative.”

“’I want to be the kind of person who reads books like this on my summer holiday,’ it says. But implicit in the act of posting the photo for public consumption is the hope that we become someone who is at least seen as the kind of person who reads those books on their summer holiday – whether or not we do actually read them.”

Stephanie Convery

There you have it: an important dilemma for you to ponder the next time you’ve got two hours to kill at the airport. And yet another good reason to pick up something ‘trashy’ – or an airport thriller.

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