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

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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.

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