by Lorin Stein
This afternoon, thanks to Franzen, Obama, and the Wall Street Journal, I've been thinking about beach reading—the concept, I mean.
I'm against it.
I do like beaches. And I like reading on beaches, when I get the chance. This summer the closest I've gotten to a beach is my tenement roof—it amounts to the same thing.
The thing about reading on a beach, or a roof, is what else are you going to do?
Last summer a friend of mine finished translating all the poems of the great Italian Romantic Giacomo Leopardi. These poems are very beautiful, they are one of the glories of Italian literature—but Leopardi is not known for the variety of his subjects. Or for his joie de vivre. If he wasn't the most depressed poet who ever lived, he had to be the most consistently depressed:
No hope of seeing you alive
remains for me now,
except when, naked and alone,
my soul will go down a new street
to its unknown home
is a typical Leopardi sentiment (except maybe for that "except"). The amazing thing about Leopardi, as a person, is how long he endured the misery of his life. He lived to the age of 38, a conspicuously ugly hunchback trapped in a small town where everybody—literally, everybody—hated him, writing poem after poem about his loneliness and despair.
Leopardi may or may not be your cup of tea. But I submit to you he goes down easier on a beach.
On a roof he is bliss.
There are lots of books I remember reading all at one go because I happened to be stranded (literally, "beached") somewhere on a towel in the sun. Gilbert Sorrentino's Aberration of Starlight (roof). Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star (roof). Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber (Maine).
To me beach reading means (or ought to mean) reading without interruption—something most of us almost never get to do. It means reading to be absorbed.
And yet every June we see these lists of something else called "beach reading"—"lighter" stuff than we, presumably, beat our brains against the rest of the year. I know it's a manner of speaking. I know publishers have to promote their spring lists somehow. I know magazines need "content." I know people don't actually go and stock up on Paolo Coelho because it's Memorial Day weekend. (They buy him, if they buy him, all year round. More power to them.)
"Beach reading" only bugs me because it makes reading in general sound like a chore, and because it drapes a fake aura of naughtiness over mass market books, which sell millions of copies anyway and don't need the bad publicity. It's like calling a hot fudge sundae "decadent."
It's not decadent: it's a sundae.
The first recorded instance of "beach reading," used in the current sense, dates from 1937. It appeared in Collier's, a popular magazine of the day. It was meant to suggest an activity of the leisure classes, who, in 1937, were the only people going anywhere near a beach. This was the decade that gave us the "sun tan." (Before that it was just a burn.)