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.