We are together in the shame of it, we, who have been denied access to public beaches over the tomes in our totes. Security rustles through our things, pulls out Finnegan’s Wake or The Divine Comedy, and scowls. We’d have had better luck with open containers here; we are now persona non grata on the sands. “This,” declares security, “is not a beach book.” Volleyball games stop and sandcastle construction ceases mid pat; all eyes are on you.
You have broken the cardinal rule of sunbathing: you have brought a book to the seaside that is NOT a Beach Book.
Or!: none of that ever happens, because the “Beach Book” is not a real thing.
It’s a phantom category. It’s shorthand for “easy reading,” sure, but shorthand is just a nice way to say a cheat. “Beach book” is a way around discussing titles at hand in any real way, and is not actually a meaningful distinction. Beach book…versus what? Titles that, when brought in proximity to the right alignment of towel, sand, and water, fly off as if magnetically repelled? Do any books actually resist being slid between your sunscreen and your floppy hats?
You can read Jennifer Weiner on the beach if you’d like to. You can read anything on the Bestseller’s List. You can take out Glamour or the New Yorker. You can flip open War and Peace or work your way through Bukowski or pore over Where’s Waldo? or read from Whitman at the top of your lungs. You can go Tartt or Karl Barth, you can read your way through The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or awe through Song of Solomon. You can even take Jonathan Franzen to the beach, though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that; if you like yourself enough to treat yourself to a beach vacation, you probably like and respect yourself more than to subject yourself to Franzen.
As long as you’ve got enough sunblock or a proper umbrella, as long as you’ve got the arm strength to hold whatever massive or diminutive volume you drag out with you above your head for flipping through: you can, and should, read whatever you damn well please at the beach, just as you can, and should, read whatever you damn well please any time you’re fortunate enough to find some space to read.
“Beach book” is a bloodless category, an unexamined and color-free shell of a method to discuss, in any intelligible way, the titles that we’re reading. So I propose that we stop. I suggest that we get super real with our book discussions this summer, and, in the course of our waterward travels, agree to abide by this method of proper “beach book” selection:
1) Is it a book?
2) Are you going to be reading it on the beach?
Then–ta da!–what you’ve got there, whatever it is, is a real life, honest to goodness, certified “beach book.” Congratulations and happy reading.