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.)
You see the charm, from a marketing perspective. The newspaper critic tells you Gone With the Wind is trash, but now you can march into the bookshop and demand it without shame—you're headed for Monte Carlo!
The phrase came into its own after the War, in the era of Harvard Classics and the GI Bill, the era that gave us "middlebrow" as a put-down. Suddenly large numbers of people were getting liberal arts educations. They were also much more likely than their parents to spend time on an actual beach.
Now "beach reading" marked you as a cultivated person—as someone who needed to take a break, every now and then, from Katherine Anne Porter or The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and kick back with The Valley of the Dolls.
There is a kind of snobbery in the phrase—that's what I hate about it. Snobbery and shame. That weird American low self esteem masquerading as self-indulgence. "Beach reading" is an anachronism, kept alive by publishers and magazines to help us all pretend we read more, and more deeply, than we do. And that we don't give a damn what we read.
How much do people read nowadays? I don't know. I don't put much stock in those NEA reports. It is striking, however, in a novel or film from mid-century (or even from the '70s or '80s) how likely the average character is to kill time—at the beach, after work, wherever—by picking up a book.
One interesting technical problem for writers today is how to invent characters who are plausible readers—without writing a campus novel. The problem is bigger than you might think: ever since Jane Austen most fictional characters have talked and thought like people who read fiction. Many basic techniques of the modern novel (dialogue, inner monologue, moral suspense) require characters who think in something like novelistic prose.
You notice the difficulty in a novel like Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, where media people of the early Oughts are forced—ingeniously and enjoyably—to have verbally complicated thoughts about their lives, as if they went home every night and curled up with Edith Wharton. You don't actually overhear conversations like that at the Waverley Inn.
Others who tackled the problem and made it central to their fiction include: Bret Easton Ellis, David Foster Wallace, Mary Robison, Don DeLillo, Tom McCarthy. They are not writing "pastoral," they are not writing about people less educated than the reader. They are writing about us.
To overhear an ordinary character thinking deeply, in complex sentences, about his or her life involves a new suspension of disbelief. This is one of the things I love about contemporary fiction at its best—that it makes us overhear, and believe.