Have airport novels had their day?

Opinion: Novel-reading no longer default activity for the waiting traveller

Sat, May 17, 2014, 12:01

The airport novel is not dead. The airport novel will not die. But the airport novel is not what it was.

A little less than a decade ago, I was trapped in an airport lounge and, because I am both nosy and pathetic, I decided to stroll around the room and take note of what the other passengers were reading.

To my horror and astonishment, more than half the clutched paperbacks bore the dread name of Dan Brown. One might have thought that staring blankly at the wall while listening to the bellowing of sugared-up children would be preferable to any perusal of the linguistic contagion that passes for sentences in Brown’s books. It seemed not.

None of the readers was weeping in shame. All seemed engrossed in the confection of paranoia and careering coincidence. Last week, because I am still pathetic and nosy, and because I needed to go to the lavatory, I walked from one end of a packed aircraft to the other.

Here’s the skinny. Only three people seemed to be reading any sort of book in physical or digital form. (I’m guessing the Kindle user wasn’t flicking through a digital version of Small Animals Monthly.) Passengers were tapping bleeding phones, reading ghastly magazines and talking to awful family members.

More than a few, like the character derided in Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, appeared content to focus silently on the still-sheathed tray table. Some snoozed.

Candy Crush may well be more intellectually stimulating than The Da Vinci Code, but it remains sad to see books – and, more significantly, the novel – losing their hold on the public imagination. I am, of course, aware that such “anecdotal evidence” is no more secure than the testimony of the sceptic who, upon spotting a single snowflake, offers proof that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the solar-panel lobby. But there is firmer evidence of decline.

Declining book sales
A recent report in this newspaper revealed that, “from a high of €165 million in 2008, book sales in Ireland have fallen for nearly six years”. Last year, the market was worth less than €100 million. The report admitted that ebooks were not included in the figures but argued that, even if the digital sales were added in, a “big fall-off in book sales would still go unexplained”.

That’s all very grown-up, responsible and statistically secure. But just look at this aircraft. Look at this pre-boarding area. The fat, embossed tome was once so common in these places that swathes of popular fiction were, indeed, classified as “airport novels”.

Those books were a little too varied to constitute a genre. Barbara Taylor Bradford’s airport novels concerned ambitious women working their way to the top. Wilbur Smith’s airport novels followed mannish men as, unimpeded by modern sensitivities, they shouldered the white man’s burden in forbidding parts of Africa. Harold Robbins’s extraordinary airport novels, now alm- ost all out of print, combined mid-level pornography with paeans to aggressive capitalism that might have made even Ayn Rand’s eyes water.

Robbins’s The Carpetbaggers, read furtively by a million teenagers beneath midnight blankets, still works, for all its fetid horrors, as an effective roman à clef on the trials of Howard Hughes.

All these thick books would pass the time. More importantly, most of them would, during the hijackings so common in that era, comfortably stop more than one bullet from an AK-47.

Chick lit and fantasy
There is still a great deal of decent popular fiction about. The better authors of much-derided “chick lit” – the likes of Marian Keyes and Sinéad Moriarty – are right to baulk at the reduction (in sentences such as this one) of their soci- ally conscious novels to such an undignified rhyming catch- all. George RR Martin’s fant- asies deserve their renown.

None of this can, however, conceal the decline of novel- reading as a default activity for the waiting traveller. Note how, in questionnaires, celebrities often list “reading” as a hobby. A few short dec- ades ago, this would have been akin to listing “breathing” or “passing wind” as a hobby. It was just assumed that anybody lucky enough to be literate would have a book (most often a novel) “on the go”.

Television, radio and films were all supposed to kill off the popular novel. As things worked out, a happy symbiotic relationship developed. Gone With the Wind, a prototype airport novel, and The Godfather, a classic of the form’s high period, both generated enormously popular films that spurred further sales for the source material.

But you couldn’t watch telly or movies in the queue for the 8.15 to Lanzarote. You can now. You can also play Candy Crush. You can engage in word games and reorganise your electronic calendar. Everything’s awful now. Time to take solace from the collected works of Arthur Hailey.

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