Robert Hanks: The bookshelves of holiday cottages speak volumes about us

Related Topics

Every summer, the press is briefly preoccupied by the question of what reading material we should take on holiday: books pages are crowded with recommendations by public and literary figures, while commentators are obliged to parse the book choices of our political leaders.

In either case, literary taste is to some degree jostled out by public image-building, the aim in general being to look smart but not to the point of being odd.

Of as much interest as what we take away, though, is what we find when we get there. The shelves of holiday cottages are a valuable source for any student of leisure. On the coasts of East Anglia or in Devon and Cornwall, among the hills of Snowdonia or in the Lake District, the cultural archaeologist can scrape through layers of aspiration and indulgence to uncover some fragments of the mental life of the British middle classes (the renting of cottages being by and large a bourgeois vice) in the closing years of the 20th century and the opening decades of the 21st.

Although the books are arranged any old how, they can be categorised on a sliding scale of sophistication or, if you prefer, snobbery. At the bottom come the frankly pulpy: Jackie Collins and Jeffrey Archer, Catherine Cookson and Barbara Cartland, Dick Francis and Wilbur Smith – books that offer highly specific forms of gratification and attempt to abolish the contradiction contained in the phrase "beach reading" by granting an experience so thought-free and unengaged that it hardly counts as reading at all. On the non-fiction side, this category also include celebrity memoirs and books on aircraft of the Second World War.

Then comes the solid core of middlebrow leisure, writing that combines generic readability with a degree of ambition: Joanna Trollope, John Le Carré, P D James and Ruth Rendell, the Harrises – Thomas and Robert – Alex Garland, Stephen King, Elmore Leonard. In my experience, you will be unlucky not to find a selection of Patrick O'Brians (though this year, hoping for The Ionian Mission, I had to settle for a reread of The Surgeon's Mate). Historians (few of us seem to be scientists, philosophers or economists on holiday) can look for Anthony Beevor, Christopher Andrew on spies, Amanda Foreman on British royal historical figures.

Finally, there are the Booker shortlists of yesteryear: Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, A S Byatt and Beryl Bainbridge; but also half-forgotten names – Barry Unsworth! J L Carr! Keri Hulme!

These books have two things in common: somebody wanted to read them enough to take them on holiday, but didn't want to take them home again – first chosen, then rejected. Perhaps it's unfair to read into them a collective message; but if there is one, it is this: that even leisure is an aspiration we rarely attain. What we look forward to easily becomes something we want to leave behind.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam