Summer read: Grounded in the UK, Scarlett Cayford is nostalgic for a very specific reading experience.
First published February 3, 2021.
In order to qualify as an “airport book” a novel must meet a very specific set of requirements. The first, unsurprisingly, is that it must be purchased at an airport. But this is far from being the only defining characteristic of an airport book.
A true airport book is a book you have never read before. Ideally, the book will also be new to your holiday companions; all the better for passing round on Day Three of your break. Airport books can’t be too long (heavy) but they also can’t be too short (what if you finish it before the end of the holiday, and no one else has swappable reading material, and you have to execute a book heist?).
Interestingly, there is no hard and fast rule around genre. Crime and thrillers work perfectly, but so does chicklit and romance, or autobiographies of people who have not led difficult lives (one minor trauma is acceptable). Fantasy would potentially make for an excellent airport book genre if it didn’t perpetually contravene the weight rule.
A novice to the concept of the airport novel might imagine that the Whitcoulls Top 100 doubles as a list of airport books, since you are likely to be able to buy any of those books from an airport. However, this giant in the world of literary rankings is filled with books that are not airport books. Lord of The Rings (too heavy). Normal People (too short). Gone Girl (you know how it ends). Those books exist in airports to be given as last-minute gifts to homestay hosts, cousins and in-laws; they are not airport books. Further to this, anything that you might find on a 100-level English course is categorically not an airport book: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, etc.
There are more rules, of course. It is not an airport book if you don’t purchase it alongside a bottle of water, a toothbrush and three types of calorific consumables. Hardcover books can never be airport books, and neither can poetry. Short story anthologies require case-by-case analysis. Ideally, an airport book should have been published no more than 30 years ago, and no fewer than two.
Airport books must be enjoyable, but not too enjoyable. They are there to distract you from take-off and landing, for the intervening hours, and to fill in the activity-less nooks on your holiday, but that is it. If your book is so engrossing that it prevents you from attending the lunch buffet, or attempting to board an inflatable unicorn with a rainbow mane in the middle of an infinity pool, or drinking hot spiced wine in front of a very old church, then it has failed.
Additionally, if you enjoy it so much that you want to bring it back with you, then this is a failure on the part of both the book and you. The space taken up by your airport bookshop purchase is not available on the return trip, now filled with either a badly-fitting swimsuit, duty-free booze or a selection of shells. It is also not good practice to bring your airport book back with you even if you do have the room: as the purchaser of an airport book, you are participating in a world-wide book-swap scheme, which takes place under hotel beds, on sun loungers, in bus seat-pockets and, interestingly, in airports.
A large number of airport books are written by a specific subgroup, which I will coin airport authors, all of whom I suspect are entirely aware of their market. Jodi Picoult, Liane Moriarty, Stephen King, John Grisham, Lee Child, Ian Fleming, Dan Brown, Jojo Moyes, and Nicholas Sparks are classic examples. You’ll pick them out of the crowd thanks to another identifying characteristic of the airport novel: the names of the authors are usually printed larger than the title of the work. Their genres are mixed but their modus operandi are not: gripping right from page one, favourably formulaic, gently prosaic, and all readily combined with margaritas, sunsets, and pilot announcements. These authors write worlds that are quickly immersive but not sticky. You emerge clean, refreshed, and ready to partake in your well-rested, slow-paced reality. And they deal well with interruption – much like a private swimming pool, you can dip in and out as many times as you like (and you can enjoy them naked). There’s a reason why these books are mostly written by seasoned professionals: it is not easy to create worlds like these replete with characters you can adore, but not as much as the companion you have to rub sunscreen into.
Airport books survived plenty of societal shifts that seemed likely to end their popularity. Luggage allowances got smaller and smaller, but the airport book did not (we just got better at carrying them casually alongside our hand luggage, so they never contributed to the weight). Kindles should have been a death-knell but the thing about airport books is that they’re most often purchased by people who aren’t prolific readers – on holiday, you need a portable form of entertainment that won’t bother your adjacent sunbathers. No one wants to be the wanker watching Netflix on the pool lounger.
I don’t know if airport books will survive Covid-19. Ebooks and audio-books did alright out of lockdown, but here in the UK, where many airport novels are published, the printed word did not fare so well. International travel will surely rise from the ashes eventually, since the airlines are all owned by the billionaires who make the rules. But book browsing might go the way of birthday candles – and another essential characteristic of an airport book is that it is selected only after reading the blurbs of at least 10 other books while waiting for your gate to be announced. Airport books are necessarily tactile: the dog-eared pages, the smears of sunscreen, the crumbs of croissants. Airport books are a bon voyage gift to yourself that you always eventually give away, by dint of forgetfulness or laziness or luggage weight, and a likely outcome of the pandemic is a reduction in that human inclination to share, and touch.
I miss buying airport books almost as much as I miss that moment of stepping out of the automatic doors of an arrivals lounge into a country you’ve never been before. I miss the ritual of leaving a fellow traveller to mind my luggage while I browse; I miss picking out an unfamiliar book by a familiar author to go along with my 750mL Evian and my Tangfastics. I miss using it as a default passport holder. I miss setting it down upside-down on my tray table, 100 pages in and 25,000 feet up, staring out the window into an endless blue sky; that sensation of living out my own story, with surprise interludes, unfamiliar characters and a third-act reveal, and an ending I hope will be unpredictable.
We are here thanks to you. The Spinoff’s journalism is funded by its members – click here to learn more about how you can support us from as little as $1.