Herman Melville, born 200 years ago next month, had some timeless advice: If the sweltering heat of July is giving you a damp, drizzly November in your soul, it is high time to get to sea, even if it’s just within the pages of a book. As Lena Lenček and Gideon Bosker write in their history of the beach, physicians of past centuries saw the ocean as healing and invigorating in part because of its dangerous qualities. That same duality applies in literature, where the sea is frequently used to symbolize the freedom, allure, and fear of the unknown. The writer Chloe Aridjis makes the beaches of Mexico her site for a haunting meditation on time and beauty, while the novelist Jennifer Egan dives into the New York harbor to explore emotional and historical connections too deep to be logically explained.
For the journalist Doug Bock Clark, writing about the Lamalerans—members of a hunter-gatherer group that’s spent hundreds of years hunting sperm whales with handmade harpoons—required him to set aside many of the reporting techniques he knew. And for the author Darcey Steinke, a dearth of human narratives about menopause inspired a quest for guidance from an unlikely source: female killer whales.
Each week in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Check out past issues here. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.
What We’re Reading
Jennifer Egan’s surprising swerve into historical fiction
“Anna Kerrigan, the novel’s central figure, trains as a diver, trawling the bottom of New York Harbor to explore a ‘landscape of lost objects,’ make repairs to World War II battleships, and finally search for a corpse. Manhattan Beach, too, plunges into the past to discover what lies beneath the surface of our own world.”