We have all participated in the discussion about the new ways of reading, the end of the book, the new literacy, etc., etc., ad infinitum. And things are certainly changing. I’m not going to fight any rear-guard neo-luddite battles. I’ve read the reports in Publishers Weekly and The Chronicle of Higher Education. The change has happened. So I thought I would pay attention during some holiday traveling this year, and try to see what, if anything, people might be reading on planes and in airports.
I traveled between December 22 and December 29, and took four planes—from Detroit to Salt Lake City, then on to Portland, Oregon. I returned from Portland through Minneapolis to Detroit. I admit that Portland might provide some exceptional circumstances. It is the home, after all, of one of the surviving great bookstores. I went to Powell’s on the day after Christmas and spent three hours in the poetry section alone, spending something close to $400, then mailing back a big box of books through them for only a fraction of the cost Delta Airlines would have charged me for an extra suitcase. At Powell’s, on December 26, I had to fight off other browsers to get to the books I wanted, using those persistent gentle nudges I learned to use back in the day we had genuine book buying and lots of bookstores in Ann Arbor. It was great to feel that old feeling in a book shop once again.
But back to the planes and airports. Yes, probably as many people were looking at computer screens, i-phones or game-boys (or whatever those are called now), as were reading, but they didn’t yet dominate the field. There were electronic readers out there, but I only counted six among the thousands of people I watched read. I don’t know what people were reading on them, and I’m far too shy to ask, but I was amazed I saw so few. I didn’t see nearly as many newspapers or magazines as I remember seeing during past travels, but they were still there and still occupying hundreds of readers. People and all the various fan-zines predominated among the magazines, but I still saw a couple Harpers and Atlantics.
But books were everywhere! Thousands of people on these planes and in these airports were still reading books! And all kinds of books. Yes, popular fiction still predominated—romances and murder mysteries. I saw Agatha Christie, too, and Elmore Leonard, my favorite. Stieg Larsson, of course. Lots of Dean Koontz. Some Carl Hiassen. I saw one person reading The Swan Thieves by my friend Elizabeth Kostova, and that pleased me immensely. And in the Minneapolis airport late at night a man finished Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool, then closed the book with a sigh and stared out at the black window and the snow beyond for many minutes. When I walked back from the restroom, I looked over a man’s shoulder to see that he was reading a hardcover copy of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling! That was perhaps the most surprising book, although an older woman was intent on one of the recent biographies of Somerset Maugham, too, and that seemed wonderfully out of place. Of course I saw lots of popular history and several books on technology, including an instructional book on photoshop. That seemed incongruous—do people still need to read BOOKS about how to work computer programs? Clearly, there are issues I haven’t contemplated. I thought I might see more people reading the brilliant new biography of Cleopatra, but I only saw the copy my wife was reading.
Other than the translations of Jean Follain in my own backpack, I didn’t see any poetry books out there in the planes and airports this season, but I didn’t really expect to see any. After all, that’s not really the right environment for poetry. All of those readers were sitting home quietly by the fire, I’m sure, deeply moved by the encounter with the world and its language. Yes, I’m sure that’s where they were.