As you probably know, it’s summer. The temperatures are climbing, and you’re spending your days snow-globed by air-conditioning or huddled beside a fan, forearming sweat from your brow. On the rare occasions you exit your house, you navigate the streets wearing the idea of clothes instead of the actual thing.
Sometime soon, though, you’ll need a change of scenery. You’re already hot, so why not be hot close to something cooler, like water? Close to where land—boring, predictable land—ceases to be? Why not go someplace where style writers won’t tsk you in the paper of record for dressing as the season demands? On a Saturday in August, you’ll pack precious supplies into a billowy canvas bag: the towels, the blanket, the hulking umbrella, the children, the snacks, the lotion, the bottle of wine, and, obviously, that book that everyone’s reading.
If I was there with you, though, I would pull the book from your bag.
The beach is no place for a book.
Reading is not a beachy activity. Reading is for armchairs and bay windows and loverless beds. Bring a book to the beach and you’re agreeing to ruin the book. No matter how careful you are, sand will stuff the creases between the pages—seven years after a beach trip during grad school, I still find sand in my copy of Delmore Schwartz’s collected poems. As a teenager, I vacationed in Jamaica with my dad’s family during the school year and brought Candide—homework—to read on the beach. I fell asleep 10 pages in and woke up as flaky as fish food, my skin road-flare red save for the pale, book-shaped mark on my chest. Was the sunburn the book’s fault or my fault for failing to apply sunscreen, intent on earning my first-ever tan?
It was the fault of the book.
Think back to the last time you read on the beach. Your fingers were probably wet—from either sweat or just having emerged from the ocean. Wet fingers create wet pages, and wet pages either tear or, in a best-case scenario, dry into warped, bacon-y sheets. The sun makes the pages blisteringly bright. Wearing sunglasses while reading is no fun, no fun at all, and yet on the beach I’m reduced to goggling up so the sun’s reflections don’t Lasik my pupils. Life is full of excellent places to read. Stop pretending the beach is one of those places.
While beach reading has never been especially fun or practical, now is possibly the worst time to read at the beach. COVID-19 cases are rising as the Delta variant is pummeling the unvaccinated, and sometimes sneaking past the defenses of vaccinated people too. All signs point to shutdowns returning. Tokyo reentered a state of emergency in early July; the increase in travel across the world will likely cause cases to surge as travelers return home. Beginning next week, New York City will require proof of vaccination for all indoor dining. The CDC is advising all people to wear masks indoors in communities where the Delta variant is spreading, and new mask mandates have cropped up from California to Washington, D.C. Soon, we’ll be stuck in our houses, with armchairs and bay windows and loverless beds—regretting the time we spent outside with a book.
Now is the time to treat the beach as a beach. Get drunk in the sun (where it’s legal). Frantically lick at an ice-cream cone the color of Dr. Manhattan. Let a child bury you in sand up to your neck. Ask if the beautiful people playing beach volleyball need one more, and assure them it’s actually for the best, with how your back has been feeling, that they don’t need anyone else.
Crash into a wave while intercepting a Nerf football thrown by a stranger. Eat Doritos. Do not stop to consider where the Dorito dust ends and the sand begins on the tips of your fingers. Nap. Nap. Apply sunscreen. Nap.
Wonder how much it would cost to hire a plane to skywrite the name of the podcast you’ve been thinking of starting. Accidentally step on a crab. Overpay for a hard seltzer out of somebody’s cooler. Take a photo with your friends because truly you’ve never looked better; seriously, you look fucking amazing.
Gaze into the ocean as the tide rises, retreats, rises, retreats, rises, retreats, and reflect on how small all of this is—all life, especially yours—and how worthy of your unguarded attention. Because someday you won’t exist anymore, and long after that the sand, the ocean, the earth will, like you, cease to exist.
As you’re reflecting on this beautiful horrible thought, a sand fly will alight below the inner crook of your elbow, on that part of your forearm where you’ve always wanted to get a tattoo—if only you could decide what you wanted to get. While the sand fly examines your skin, deciding whether to bite, reach for the book you brought with you—the book that everyone’s reading—but the book will not be there, and the sand fly, sated, will corkscrew safely into the sky.