I was sitting in Heathrow, waiting for a flight, casually thumbing through a book. A woman in her 40s approached me: starched skirt, name tag, and a matching blouse and blue jacket that belied her affiliation with the airline industry. In her hand was an iPad that she held like a clipboard.
“May I ask you a few questions?”
I didn’t mind completing the survey; Heathrow had just undergone a spate of renovations to make the space more welcoming, a cross between an upscale mall and a media center. When she got to my satisfaction with shopping opportunities, I said, “It would be nice to have some better choices at the bookstore.”
I explained. We have so much variety that isn’t represented by the bestseller list. Bestsellers now operate more like blockbuster films. Publishing houses have invested enough money that they can’t afford for them not to sell, and sell big. The rare literary work that makes it through the crime thrillers, romance novels, biographies, or business self-help books generally do so by way of a recognized prize. But I didn’t expect airline bookstores to change. The kind of book I was looking for would likely languish on the shelves for years until the right reader picked it up. Bookstores in airports don’t have the patience for that to happen. They have algorithms and marketing models that are better predictors than my own tastes for determining what would sell.
She tapped away on the iPad and then stopped. “You seem to know a lot about publishing. Do you mind me asking what you do for a living?”
“I’m a writer,” I said.
Just saying it, I felt like a dinosaur. And a tad disingenuous. I wrote books that a handful of people had read. They’d been critically well-received but hadn’t won any major awards. Plus, being a writer wasn’t my only occupation. I also taught at a liberal arts college in the US. Last year a friend of mine sent me a fake tax return with two lines for income. Amount made teaching creative writing?—a professor’s salary. Amount made writing creatively?—zero. It was a joke between insiders who couldn’t make a living wage as writers if it wasn’t for institutions of higher education.
But the statement intrigued her just the same. She sat back, tucked her iPad away. “You know I’ve been doing this for years and you’re only the second writer I’ve ever met.”
“Really? Who was the first?”
“James Ellroy,” she said. She hadn’t recognized his name and so asked if he’d written anything she might have read. “Maybe LA Confidential,” he said. She was embarrassed and had to say no, she hadn’t read it. But she had seen the movie. That seemed to make him upset and she ended up cutting the survey short.
“You know, I used to read all the time. Novels, biographies, you name it.”
“Why don’t you anymore?”
I imagined her in a wingback chair, following the line of words in the gloaming before a winter night, or hearing the hush of a turning page as she read next to a bedside lamp. She fit a strong reading demographic: a woman in her 40s, intelligent-looking, with corrective lenses for her myopia. She had loved it, this solitary pastime. But now other media competed for her attention: the TV discreetly hung on her wall, the iPad filled with images like the splash of a magazine cover, her laptop, her phone. Then there were the constraints of her family, her growing children and an occupation that seemed to infiltrate her life like never before. Where was the time? She spoke the words with regret and longing: I used to read.
Reading was something she had cherished, something that had made her more empathetic and a better person. She had felt the power of the printed word and wanted to feel it again if only to conjure memories of those threshold moments in her life where the world tilted and she found herself forever changed. Surely it was something worth doing again. She would give it another go, tonight, curl up with a book like she used to until her hands were sore for holding open the pages, until her eyelids drooped and she contemplated what she had read. Subconsciously, it imprinted itself on her dark matter, and she fell asleep. She would prove that the onslaught of other platforms wasn’t killing the written word. Why had she stopped? Why would she ever?
“I really don’t know,” she said.
Eric Freeze is a Canadian author of two books: Dominant Traits (stories, Oberon 2012) and Hemingway on a Bike (essays, University of Nebraska Press 2014). He has published in periodicals including Boston Review, The Southern Review, and Harvard Review. He lives in Indiana and Nice, France.