With the time you spend commuting every day, you could read dozens of books every year. Pádraig Belton asks, is there a perfect medium for the length of your ride to work?
Over the past few decades, commuting times have risen dramatically in most major cities. As inner-city property prices have mounted, many workers are moving further to city peripheries for lower costs – but those searching for cheaper rents are encountering longer commutes. The number of Brits spending two hours a day commuting, for example, had increased by 72% in a decade, according to a 2015 study.
Indeed, the most recent studies available find the typical Londoner spends an average of six hours and 10 minutes each week commuting, while the average New Yorker clocks in slightly more, at six hours and 18 minutes.
Meanwhile, millennials are reading more than their older counterparts. According to a Pew study, 72% of 18- to 29-year-old readers in the US have read a print book in the previous year, more than any other age group. At the same time, a third of book buyers under 44 want to spend less time on digital devices, says the Codex Group, which specialises in book audience research. Print book sales have risen in each of the three last years, following a period of stagnation.
Publishers are well aware of both these trends, and are actively chasing the 'commuter read'. Penguin has started publishing small-sized books “designed to pick up, pocket, and go”, says Philippa Cowburn, a spokeswoman. In a similar vein, Oxford University Press has released a selection of 35,000-word titles, formatted in specialised block paragraphs which aim to make it easier to find your place again after forced breaks in concentration.
If we consider that the average adult reads about 300 words a minute, in the six hours you might commute each week, you could read some 108,000 words, and still have enough time left to check in and update your Twitter. That’s about the length of Wuthering Heights, Gulliver's Travels or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Of course, that’s assuming you’re riding on public transport and have the elbow room to open a book. Those behind the wheel have no such option – unless they’re listening to audiobooks, that is.
Even short commutes can be used successfully to read more. So BBC Capital asked: what are the best ways to read, and the best things to read, for your particular commute?
15 minutes or less
Poetry is well-suited to a short commute, says professor Wiebo Brouwer, a neuropsychologist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. He says short commutes best fit "texts with a shorter time scale, like news items or short poems.
"Finishing such a short text offers a moment of choice after, either to read a new short item, to prepare for transfer, or to start a conversation," he says.
Another route in is flash fiction. Works of 1,000 words or fewer, these stories can fit into a journey of a stop or two, says Irish flash fiction author Adam Trodd. A good place to start would be Sleep is a Beautiful Colour, an anthology launched in June this year, in celebration of Flash Fiction Day.
For other morsel-sized reading, publishers are printing concise books with extracts from longer works, such as Penguin’s Great Ideas series, or short topic overviews, such as MIT Press's Essential Knowledge and Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons.
30 minutes or less
For 30-minute journeys, short story collections are ideal. Joseph Kennedy, deputy head of bookshop at Oxford University Press suggests ‘masters of the form’ such as Anton Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield, and 'new masters’ like Lorrie Moore.
"I personally prefer interconnected stories," says publisher Meike Ziervogel, who runs Peirene Press in London. She recommends Breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes, The Beggar Maid by Alice Monroe, All That Man Is by David Szalay.
Also fitting nicely into this category are The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, and One Thousand and One Nights, all of them late-mediaeval collections of stories placed within a frame story, each meant to be enjoyed at a different sitting.
Alternatively, OUP's Very Short Introductions "might be perfect for, say, Ealing to Chancery Lane", or Brooklyn to Midtown Manhattan or other half-hour commutes, says publisher Luciana O’Flaherty.
She recommends reading non-fiction in the morning and fiction in the evening. For those coming to London, she suggests starting out with classics set along your commute. "Read about Martians invading Surrey as you come in from Richmond. Or The Mark on the Wall from Virginia Woolf, for short pieces on London," she says.
45 minutes or less
For commutes this length, the serial novel really comes into its own. Books like Dickens' Pickwick Papers – the first real publishing phenomenon – appeared in installments (19 in the case of Pickwick), so reading them episode-by-episode is returning to their origin.
Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, the first full-length detective novel, was also serialised by Charles Dickens in a magazine he edited, All the Year Round.
The Three Musketeers appeared initially in serial form in a newspaper, too. So too did Henry James's Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors, as well as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Epistolary novels, which are told through letters and diary entries, fit well into 45-minute commutes, too: Dracula and Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, or more recently Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger.
60 minutes or more
You lucky commuter – journeys of this length allow enough time to immerse yourself in longer works. "When beginning in a new novel, quite a lot of reading time might be required to build up the internal context for interpreting and appreciating the separate elements of the story, and in a short commute the build up will be incomplete," says professor Brouwer.
Dipping in and out of a lengthy novel duing short journeys, a "commuter might consider that the disappointment of being torn out of the story is worse than the gain of learning only slightly more about the events described in the novel," he says.
At this length, most recent winners of major prizes begin to roll into view – like 2016 Booker winner, Paul Beatty's The Sellout, or the 2015 winner, Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings.
For a non-intimidating entry into this category, try referring to a well-curated list, like The 100 Favourite Novels of Librarians (Pride and Prejudice comes tops), the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century (Ulysses), or the Norwegian Book Clubs' Top 100 Works in World Literature (Don Quixote).
Practice makes perfect
Focusing on reading during short commutes means learning to ignore some stimuli, like people around you or a hot rail carriage – and concentrate on the task at hand, says Dr Tade Thompson, a British consultant psychiatrist and novelist.
“To facilitate this, it helps to make it a habit," says Dr Thompson. Commitment, consistency, and regularity helps to facilitate the brain pathways associated with reading, he says. So keep doing it, and you'll get better at it.
With a bit of practice, you never know – your commute may turn out to be the part of the day you most look forward to.