Beach Reads for Smart People, a List by Stephen Elliott, Sasha Frere-Jones and Others

We don't know when it was determined that we could not read books of substance on the beach. But with the help of some literary-minded friends of The Atlantic Wire, we're calling hogwash on this verdict. 

This article is from the archive of our partner .

We don't know when it was determined that we could not read books of substance on the beach. When it was determined that "beach reads" meant celebrity gossip magazines or predictable romance novels -- anything to prevent us from thinking about the world and our place in it, because that's what the beach is for, right? Thinking about nothing?

Well, we can't speak for everyone, but while lying on a blanket in the sand (think of how many grains of sand!), staring into the ocean that connects us to faraway shores, the ocean that makes our planet so blue, the ocean we can never see the end of, we don't feel like reading something "light." We feel small, because we are small. And feeling small makes us want to learn more about the world, ourselves and each other.

To ensure that we weren't alone, we reached out to authors and other literary-minded friends of The Atlantic Wire, asking them to suggest books that live up to the spirit of summer while still making us think. It turns out, we are not alone. Long live the smart summer beach read.

Sasha Frere-Jones, staff writer and pop-music critic at The New Yorker, recommended The Bad Guys Won! ,by Jeff Pearlman because of "1986, The Mets, unlikely triumph, [and] drug use in small spaces." Frere-Jones also suggested Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O' Hara, a memoir by Joe LeSueur, which alternates between O'Hara's poems and LeSueur's personal memories of the circumstances that inspired them. So, why is Digressions a good summer read, aside from the fact that it's an excellent book? "New York school, poets, [and] fucking in small spaces," Frere-Jones said. [We're sold.]

Emily Gould, author of And the Heart Says Whatever, suggested the French novelist Colette (whose real name was Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette) if you're looking to beach-read the work of someone considered to be one of the great novelists of the 20th century. "Colette is great summer reading, especially Green Wheat,which is about young love in the South of France," Gould told The Atlantic Wire. "Lots of descriptions of flora, fauna and food. Also, if I remember correctly, it is inspired by how Colette seduced her teen stepson as a 50-something. Hot!"

Jason Diamond, founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn and the New York Deputy Editor of Flavorpill, told us, "I read The Angry Buddhist by Seth Greenland (Europa Editions) while sweating it out in Texas and sort of wished I had held off until a vacation to California to read it," Diamond said. "It's one of those books that just evokes the weird (to me as a New Yorker, at least...) feel of California (in the book's case, Palm Springs). I kept thinking that the book was what Elmore Leonard would have written if he was a Jew from California." Diamond also offered a reading suggestion for those of us who never forget to bring beer to the beach, but sometimes forget flip-flops, or bathing suits. "The first serious beach day I had this year was spent getting pretty drunk and reading Dave Hill's Tasteful Nudes," he said. "There's a good chance that Hill is one of the funniest people alive who also happens to be a really great writer. I had to go and reread certain parts again because I wanted to make sure it wasn't the sun + tequila that was making me laugh so hard."

Stephen Elliott, author of seven books including The Adderall Diaries and the editor of The Rumpus, told us, "This summer I think everyone should read The Orphan Masters Son by Adam Johnson, because it's good. A masterpiece, actually. And fun. More fun than some other masterpieces. And it will make you think about love and also the larger world around us and you will lose yourself like in a comfortable wave."

Marcy Dermansky, author of Bad Marie and Twins, told us, "A recent discovery that I'd recommend for the beach is Miranda July's It Chooses You. It is always comforting, to read about a writer who finds herself stuck. In this memoir that does not read like a memoir, July goes through a strange and uniquely uplifting odyssey, as she interviews an oddball handful of Los Angeles misfits who put random possessions for sale in the PennySaver."

Frederick Kaufman, author of (most recently) A Short History of the American Stomach and a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine, told us, "I recommend Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of Great Victoria Adventure, by Tim Jeal. Nothing better for lounging on the beach than reading about power politics of 19th century British explorers. Not to mention plenty of malaria, dysentery, and people being hacked to death. In all seriousness, this is a great read that explains much of the present-day tragedy of Africa."

Tim Kreider, author of (most recently) We Learn Nothing and a writer for The New York Times, told us, "I'm going on book tour this summer and the book I intend to take along with me is 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson. I know from reading Robinson's earlier work that it'll be a fun and compelling read, one of those books that makes you actually look forward to the next plane trip or train ride. But he's also, as far as I'm concerned, one of the most important political novelists working today, a writer who makes intelligible and dramatic the imminent showdown between capitalism and democracy."

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal. His first play, Satchmo at the Waldorf, will be produced this summer in both Massachusetts and Connecticut. Teachout recommended George Howe Colt's The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home. "[It's] the story of a Cape Cod house and the family that spent its summers there, fishing and sailing and keeping dark, furtive secrets," Teachout told us. "Though Colt is a bred-in-the-bone WASP, there's no shortage of passionate feeling in his soft-spoken account of how he and his Boston-born relatives came to grips--or didn't--with modernity and its discontents."

David Gutowski, who writes the blog Largehearted Boy, told us, "If summer reading means being wholly transported to another era, I recommend Carol Rifka Brunt's brilliant and thoughtful debut novel Tell the Wolves I'm Home. This family drama is set in the New York City of the 1980s at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, and told through the eyes of a precocious and unforgettable teenage girl." Gutowski also suggested The Age of Miracles. "The dystopian element of Karen Thompson Walker's debut novel, a slowing of the earth's rotation, will appeal to readers looking to escape into a summer book," he said, adding that the apocalyptic thriller is also a coming of age story.

Todd Colby, a novelist and poet who is the author of Tremble & Shine (among many other books), told us to read these books in the sand:

  • Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life by Alastair Brotchie: "Jarry was a poet, playwright, pataphysician, and avid cyclist," Colby said. "Friends with Mallarme, Apollinaire, Picasso and Max Jacob. He carried a pistol around Paris and would 'carve' a duck at dinner by ripping it apart with his bare hands."
  • The Ambassadors by Henry James: "How did I manage to avoid this book until now?" Colby asked us. "Every single sentence is a delightful piece of architecture that could stand on its own. Fun fact: he dictated this book! Henry James is a drug."
  • Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler 1880-1918, edited by Laird M. Easton: "This guy knew and dined with everyone from Rilke to Nietzsche," Colby said.

Katelan Foisy is the author of Blood & Pudding and a self-described "multimedia artist, blogger, writer, tarologist and muse, sometimes model...known as La Gitana." For a summer read that will make you think, she recommended Suddenly, A Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret. "[It's a] series of short stories leading nowhere and everywhere at once," Foisy said. "The meaning actually being the journey and not the destination. These stories are immensely funny, strange, energetic, deep, and sometimes tragic. It's the summer daydream destroyed by a storm, or that midsummer night fantasy where everyone takes a wrong turn on to end up right where they need to be. A quick read giving insight into the human condition and have you wondering if there's a parallel dimension where his stories are physically taking place."

Matt Bell, author of (most recently) Cataclysm Baby and an editor at Dzanc Books and the literary magazine The Collagist, recommended Abbott Awaits by Chris Bachelder. "[The book] contains a chapter for each day of the summer, but it's no breezy vacation: Abbott is stuck at home, relieved of academic duties, caring for his toddler daughter, adjusting to his changing marriage, and navigating the somewhat-dreaded birth of his second child, as well his own general displeasure with just about everything," Bell said. "Across the ninety-some days of the book Bachelder skillfully unpacks the many frustrations and joys of Abbott's begrudged fulfillment of his role as father and husband, all coming together to create what I think is his funniest and most heartfelt book yet. As a secondary benefit, Abbott Awaits also provided my own marriage with the now oft-used phrase 'Hogging the Bad Mood,' which is the situation where one spouse refuses to give up being grumpy, despite the fact that in a successful marriage only one spouse can enjoy being in a foul temper at any given time. (Spoiler alert: Abbott hogs the Bad Mood in his house, and knows it, puts in place strategies to ensure he never accidentally gives it up.) This has become a shorthand way for my wife and I to defuse any dual-crankiness, and I probably owe Bachelder a cold summer beer for giving us a more friendly way to let each other know we're being impossible, especially on these hundred-degree days when the air conditioning is almost out, and when we have nowhere else to be—and in truth, nowhere else we'd want to be—but with each other."

Malcolm Harris, a senior editor at The New Inquiry, suggested a book that fits the "smart" bill, but we will have to add it to "end of summer" list because it doesn't come out until August. "I was lucky enough to get my hands on an early copy of Michael Thomsen's Levitate the Primate, and it's refreshing to read a guy write about his sexual experiences without feeling like the lowest common denominator," Harris said. "It's a collection of essays that follow from the author's ill-fated decision to chase a woman to New York and the sex, love, and failures that result. Thomsen is like the anti-Tucker Max, or the male Carrie Bradshaw if she actually had to make it on a writer's paycheck."

In addition to reading these books ourselves, we may want to bring some already-read smart reads for our other beach friends, so they don't feel inferior reading The Devil Wears Prada. (Which we've read. And it's pretty good. So no hate.)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.