Fiddling with iPods, PSPs, Blackberrys, Palm Pilots, pocket PCs, sampling the variety of ringtones on your mobile phone, making a preliminary assault on a complicated Kakuro, gazing at your reflection in the window slack-jawed and drooling, rummaging in your bag for a fluff-covered mint, wondering why the person opposite you is rocking to and fro and muttering to themselves, working up an elaborate backstory for the man in a gaberdine mac who looks like a spy ... there are all manner of distractions available to the average traveller keen to populate the dead zone between one station and another. But all the people interviewed below have decided to devote that little pocket of time to an activity that, on countless occasions, we have been told will come under ruinous threat from the vast number of other glittering entertainments on offer reading.
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Why do we read on trains? For as many reasons as there are readers, one suspects; the public uses of a book, a newspaper or a magazine are unlimited. Obviously, they take you away from what are, unless you are making a very short and simple trip, gruelling surroundings; lumped into a confined space with a load of people you dont know, subject to delays and confusions that cant be anticipated, unable to control noise or temperature or random incidents. In those circumstances, who wouldn't choose to shore themselves up with the printed word, to create an alternative environment that progresses from page to page without threat of interruption by failing batteries or intermittent signal?
Books, as has been noted vigorously by those keen to stand firm against the Jeremiahs who trumpet their coming obsolescence, are our most portable, most self-contained and most innovative form of entertainment; it might also be added that they now rank as one of our cheapest. You can pick up one of the classics for a couple of quid, a paperback of a recently published book for well under a tenner and even a new 1,000-page biography for less than it would cost you to go to a lower-league football match or out for a pizza.
Add to the mix the vast array of sources of second-hand books from car-boot sale to specialist websites and you have a marketplace that, if it ever was, could certainly no longer be accused of excluding anyone on grounds of finance or access.
But one charge that has been levelled with some justification against the book trade in recent times is that it is failing to promote diversity. Walk into any chain bookshop and see the same titles celebrity autobiographies and glossy TV cookbooks, for example piled up on the tables at the front; travel on the same trains as these people and watch the poster ads for the same glossy names whoosh by. Scan the bestseller lists and you'd be forgiven for thinking that, with a couple of exceptions, there are only about a dozen writers on the planet.
It can be depressing, not least when you read a terrific book that fails to make even the widest orbit of the charts, or listen to a talented writer struggling to get their third or fourth novel on to the shelves because theyve not yet clocked up the requisite bestseller that will satisfy increasingly conglomerated publishers.
But these snapshots reveal a different picture. Sure, there are a few well-known names here and one novel that (partly aided by a starry screen version) features in this week's list of bestselling paperback fiction. But alongside these less unexpected appearances are some much more surprising reading choices books that one thought long forgotten, books hardly heard of or written about, books that range from the esoteric to the popular, from the spectacularly daunting to the reassuringly lighthearted.
There are people cramming up on something for work or study, people deciding to get away from the present-day with a headlong hurtle back into the past, people finding out about their heroes or their holidays, people pursuing offbeat interests or the lesser-known works of favourite writers or the recommendations of friends or family. And not a Da Vinci Code among them.
There is another aspect to reading in public and one that were all, however unconsciously and however much we deny it, quite aware of. Books, like clothes, music (should a bit of sound leak from our hi-tech earphones) and general demeanour, say something about who we are, who we would like people to think we are and who we ourselves aspire to be. It's why the stereotype of the saturnine young man with the slim volume of poetry in his pocket exists, why publishers agonise so feverishly about book jackets and why I once nudged a friend on the tube in a chic part of west London to look at a pale, solemn young woman engrossed in a volume of Wittgenstein at 8.30 in the morning. Oh yes, he replied airily, we get a better class of reader round here.
In extremis, perhaps during a lengthy interlude in a tunnel, you might even engage a fellow traveller in conversation about what they're reading, maybe even forming an impromptu book group. My advice is to think twice if they've got their head buried in a history of poured concrete structures. Then again, even that might yield a fascinating story of underpasses, high-tensile reinforcement and hapless victims of the Cosa Nostra.
Words in motion
30, charity support worker, Hackney
Heat and The Guardian
I've just finished the highbrow Mark Lawson analysis of the Big Brother debacle; now I've convinced myself I want the pictures and I hate myself for it. Heat is actually my girlfriend's magazine, but she normally buys Grazia.
47, roofing contractor, Sunderland
Blackout by Chris Ryan
It's an SAS soldier series. I've read his stuff before. It's about al-Qaeda, about trying to catch the main men after 9/11. I've enjoyed them all. It's the same sort of thing as Andy McNab, who I also like.
36, London Underground ticket officer, Walthamstow
The Dark Tower by Stephen King
It's the first Stephen King I've read and it's very good. A friend recommended it. It's not a typical horror book, it's more science fiction.
22, PhD student, Durham
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I saw the BBC version and liked it, so I thought I'd read it as well. I've a couple of other Jane Austen novels, but I haven't got round to reading them yet. I'll read anything if I get the time.
16, student, York
Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen and Kimberley Kirberger
I was in Waterstone's yesterday with my stepmum, and she's doing a talk about sex education, so we were in that section. It looked like a good book.
42, civil servant, Essex, now Dundee
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
I think I heard about it on Richard & Judy - God that's embarrassing - and it was three for 10 . It's a strange start, quite peculiar. I wasn't prepared for the old-fashioned language.
45, business developer, Washington DC
Memorial Day by Vince Flynn
It's kind of a techno thriller. I've read all of his books so far. He's kind of like Tom Clancy, who wrote about Russian wars, but this is more modern. It's about terrorism.
57, secretary/admin assistant, Bedfordshire
The Lighthouse by PD James
It's a murder mystery. My husband bought it for Christmas, so I've got to read it. I don't think he was trying to tell me something. It's worrying for him because I might find a devious plan.
19, student, east London
Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould
It's a geological book about the Burgess Shale. I need to read it for my interview tomorrow for Durham University. It's about the founders and history of a geological site and focuses on fossils.
Jenny Graham and Sarah Burn
Both 22, marketing assistant/ finance assistant, Newcastle
I just wanted something trashy and light. I never liked Jade anyway. Sarah:
I read Heat every week and I think it's great. Brad and Angelina are who I most like to see on the cover.
19, student, Sunderland
And it's Goodnight From Him by Ronnie Corbett
The bit you caught me laughing at is where they're doing a Greek play about women who withhold sex from men (Lysistrata) and they're going to call it 'No sex please, we're brutish'.
58, unemployed/author, St Andrews
The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger
I thought it would be a fun read on the train. I've just finished one by Umberto Eco and it nearly killed me, so this is light relief. I've just finished the first chapter and it looks sort of Bridget Jonesy.
69, retired social worker, Islington
Tensions of Empire by Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler
It's written by an American professor of anthropology. She's concerned about the way notions of womanhood are shaped in relation to imperial expansion. I'm still grappling with it.
The Story of Railways
Dad Darren Waddell, 37, says: 'It's from his great-grandmother. We've just been to stay with her in Newcastle. I'm a train driver for Southeastern, so all the family are train mad. Jack's really into Thomas the Tank Engine, too.'
21, student, Glasgow
I'm a subscriber, so I read it every week. It's very informative. I'm studying economics and going for a job interview tomorrow. The piece I'm reading is about globalisation and people who've lost their jobs as a result of the changes.
54, print company worker, Sunderland
A Song at Twilight by Lilian Harry
It's a romance set during the Second World War about a pilot who flies a Spitfire. I like Catherine Cookson, I've read quite a lot of her books. I try to read a variety of books, really.
20, student, Newbury
Mastering Fashion Buying and Merchandising Management by Tim Jackson and David Shaw
I'm applying for graduate training schemes so I'm just reading up on it. I'm in my final year of an economics degree. I'm looking to be a buyer.
34, actor, Hendon, north London
Directing Actors by Judith Weston
I'm getting a director's perspective on how actors work and how they subtly manipulate them to get what they want. I've been in film since I was 13 and this is one of the best books I've read for actors.
38, nurse (now full-time mother), Harrogate
I'm catching up on styles and gossip. I usually pick up a few magazines on my way down and a few on my way up. I'm checking out what people were wearing at the Golden Globes.
40, sociology lecturer, Brixton
Affinity by Sarah Waters
She's a great lesbian writer and gives voice to women's stories, which is very important. Being a queer person myself, I think it's important to read stories that are about lives other than straight people's.
52, senior lecturer in international finance, Westminster, London
This is for my wife. I read the Financial Times. There's nothing interesting in here except for a story about how banks have been made to reduce or refund excess charges on mortgages.
41, financial manager, Watford
Pele: The Autobiography
Pele is someone I admire. He was the first footballer to score 1,000 goals. He is the greatest footballer of all time. This book details the poverty he came from. The football he had was made out of rags, so it truly is a rags-to-riches story.
32, telecoms regulator, Finsbury Park
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
It's terrifying. It really puts me off having children. My mum gave it to me, but she won't read it herself.
31, hair stylist, Jamaica, now Dundee
I'm a hair stylist, but I'm reading this for myself just to see what's going on. If you're black, this is definitely the one to buy. There are tips not only for black people but on everything - beauty, health, makeup, celebrities, even surgery.
25, gardener, Aberdeen
Lonely Planet South East Asia
I'm going to Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos for six weeks tomorrow. It's my first time out of Europe and I'm going on my own, but I'm sure I'll meet people there. I really want to see Angkor Wat and all the wildlife and rainforests.
29, GP, North Shields
Lonely Planet Canada
My wife Ellie and I are going to Canada in the summer. Ellie's going to be a bridesmaid, so we're going to combine that with our summer holiday. It's somewhere I've always wanted to go because I like the outdoors.
20, student, Edinburgh
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
She's one of my favourite authors. This book is about New York society at the end of the 19th century, about woman as a commodity. She has to get married to have any sort of value, and she doesn't.
34, teacher, Aberdeen
Kursus Bahasa Melayu by Askar Melayu DiRaja Brunei
It's a Malayan language course. I'm using mind maps to try and learn it by linking all the vocabulary together. I'm learning Spanish as well and I teach Latin. I've also some ancient Greek and German.
Interviews by Katie Toms