As a method of taking in entertainment, reading has a lot of competition—music, film, TV, video games, as well as the plethora of entertainment available on-line. These are all arguably more immediate than reading. With the possible exception of video games, reading is the only one that cannot be consumed passively—it requires effort, in concentrating on the words and making sense of the sentences. And it takes timeva three-minute song, a ninety-minute film, or a five-hour novel.
Sometimes, it feels that reading is becoming a lost art. Libraries are struggling here in the UK, and many have closed. High-street bookstores are disappearing too.
But reading is far from dead, and this was brought home to me recently on holiday. It started at the airport, and then on the plane—with hours of time to fill, passengers turned to books. And at the hotel, the popularity of reading became even more obvious.
We spent quite a bit of time by the pool, and I’d often glance around to see what others were doing. Many were sunbathing, with eyes shut. Some were talking. Others swam. And a high number of holidaymakers were reading. Whenever I counted up, there were more people reading than there were in the pool.
Let that sink in for a moment—at a hotel pool, reading was a more popular activity than swimming.
I took a surreptitious look at what people were reading. The books ranged wide. I saw Stephen King, but also China Mieville. Judging by the covers, there were thrillers and romance alongside contemporary/literary fiction. A few looked like biographies. Someone even produced a book of sheet music and read this, humming to himself.
Then there were the electronic readers. I’m assuming that many were Kindles, although I did see one Kobo (and that made me feel good—as much as I love my Kindle, it’s good to know that Amazon does still have competition).
And then there were the phones.
Of course, that phones are capable of so much more than displaying e-books. Some people round the pool wore headphones and held their phones in landscape mode, and I assume they were watching videos. Others tapped away, presumably either on games or social media apps and sites—although maybe they were writing.
But a large number of phone-users held their devices in portrait mode and tapped only occasionally—the same behaviours as those using e-readers. I have to assume that these people were reading on their phones.
Not all this reading was solitary, either. At one point, a couple sat on a couple of loungers and both produced books. After reading for a few minutes, he passed his book over to her, pointing to a particular passage. She read this, and made some comment on it.
I wondered if they’d swap books as their holiday progressed, and if they’d spend time in the evenings discussing what they’d read.
But holidays are not everyday life. Some people might say this is not evidence that reading is popular. Those who read by the pool might read nothing else for the rest of the year.
This could be true—but doesn’t that make reading something special? These people were on holiday, taking time out of their normal routines. They chose to relax in the sun by a pool, and as part of that relaxation they chose to read. Books might not be something they turn to every day, but they are reserved for special occasions. They are a way to unwind, to forget the day-to-day troubles. If someone only reads on holiday, that shows how they value reading as an exclusive activity.
Maybe those on the plane and at the airport read because they had too much time trapped in one place—but they still chose to read. Just like those who read on their daily commute to and from work, they chose to consume books to pass the time. They chose to take their entertainment in written form.
And maybe some of those holiday-makers (many of them?) were like me—using time by the pool as an opportunity to indulge in one of their favourite activities.