An illustration of a woman reading in a colourful bookshop, with a hectic airport scene in greyscale in the background
An illustration of a woman reading in a colourful bookshop, with a hectic airport scene in greyscale in the background

We were fresh off a two-hour van ride and a three-and-a-half-hour flight – seven hours of travel all in, not to mention a stack of customs and Covid-related forms and queues.

We were tired, hungry, and grumpy – and still facing a ten-and-a-half-hour flight from LAX to Heathrow. So, when we arrived at our gate to find that our late-night departure would be delayed by two more hours – and without a flight pillow to scream into – we decided to go for a wander. That’s when we stumbled upon Book Soup.

Airports are hectic, liminal spaces that feel slightly surreal at the best of times, almost nightmarishly inhumane at the worst: the food is expensive and dreadful; everybody is either stressed or bored; and with border control and airport security more rigid and scrutinous than ever, it can verge on traumatic just getting to one’s flight without frazzled nerves. Especially in the Covid era, where you pay for – and then anxiously await – the results of tests that might, at any second, scupper part of all of your holiday. We weren’t just tired but anxious about getting home, too.

So it was with great relief that, almost a full waking day into our travels, and looking down the barrel of another day’s worth of flight time, we found ourselves floating around the exquisite sanctuary of Book Soup’s beautifully curated bookshelves, a serene literary oasis amidst a desert of travel-related chaos.

My partner already she knew what she was looking for. I’d spent our holiday getting stuck into Donna Tartt’s tense, compelling The Secret History, whose dark setting but brisk pacing – not to mention its sharp, accomplished prose, and one of the most gripping prologues of all time – made it perfect holiday reading, and my girlfriend agreed: after reading that prologue (and a dozen or so pages beyond) while I was swimming, she pledged to buy a second copy as soon as possible.

I, meanwhile, drank deeply and thirstily, a parched and grateful desert traveller: I perused their expert selection of novels, from which I nearly purchased two novels I badly wanted but didn’t need at all; when I couldn’t find anything by William Faulkner in Fiction, I found their surprisingly excellent Classics section, where a generous selection of his books waited for me; and I was charmed, especially, by the city-specific selection of books on their ‘local’ shelf at the front of the shop, which sported Los Angeles photo books, fiction by local authors and, of course, a selection of screenwriting handbooks for arriving Hollywood-bound hopefuls.

If you’ve read this far, chances are you might be the type who can relate to a phrase like “the magic of bookshops” – on any given day, you could spend an hour or three just meandering among the shelves, picking up gems along the way until it’s time to narrow your final purchases from six books to maybe just two or three. And although we ended up spending just an hour at Book Soup – there are enforced time limits during travel, alas – I would argue there is some added magic to all airport bookshops, full stop.

Travel and books are already bedfellows – books can help us travel both practically (think guidebooks and non-fiction travel-writing) and metaphorically (to other places, eras, and mindsets in fiction and poetry) – and there’s nothing better than planning what to read on holiday, either: I brought The Secret History, but if I’d finished it early or not enjoyed it (as my partner did with her book) there’s nothing more exciting than an excuse to pick up something fresh on a stopover, either to suppliment or even replace your current stash of holiday reads.

I’ve mentioned the limited time you can spend in an airport bookshop, but the limited space bears mentioning, too. There’s only so much room in your baggage, which means that airport shops naturally force you to be as selective as possible – you can only bring the best, the most page-turning, or the most practical. Human beings love limitations, and airport bookshops are the ultimate mix of restriction and indulgence.

I would later find out that Book Soup, a revered independent shop situated on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, is a cultural landmark in Los Angeles – and that its LAX location is a (rather inspired) one-off – but while it did stand out from your average airport WH Smith or Hudson News, those shops retain the same limitations (and, therefore, magic) that Book Soup did. They narrow your selection for you, sometimes forcing you to pick up something you might not otherwise ­– especially if you happen to finish your packed books before you’re set to fly home.

There was, it turned out, a pristine edition of The Secret History on hand, but my partner found two other books she wanted more – she could always borrow my copy, she reasoned, when I finished. And so, just two hours or so before midnight in Los Angeles – roughly 6 a.m. in the UK, for those counting – I left Book Soup with Collected Stories, my partner with Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behaviour and a Lily King novel. We were tired, but we’d found what we were looking for: books, certainly, but more importantly, an hour of respite when we needed it most.


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Illustration: Nathalie Lees for Penguin

  • The Secret History


    Truly deserving of the accolade Modern Classic, Donna Tartt's bestseller The Secret History is a remarkable achievement ­­- both compelling and elegant, dramatic and playful.

    'What we did was terrible, but still I don't think any of us were bad, exactly; chalk it up to weakness on my part, hubris on Henry's, too much Greek prose composition - whatever you like.'

    Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of morality, their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.

    The Secret History is a story of two parts; the chain of events that led to the death of a classmate - and what happened next.

    'So irresistible and seductive it's almost a guilty pleasure' Guardian

    'Donna Tartt is an amazingly good writer. She's dense, she's allusive. She's a gorgeous storyteller' Stephen King

    'A haunting, compelling, and brilliant piece of fiction . . . Packed with literary allusion and told with a sophistication and texture' The Times

  • Buy the book

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