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Answer These 5 Questions to Pick Your Next Beach Read

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Josh Corman

Staff Writer

Josh Corman is a writer and English teacher in Central Kentucky and a Contributing Editor at Panels. He also writes for Kentucky Sports Radio’s pop culture blog, Funkhouser. If he’s not reading, he’s hanging out with his wife and two young children or cheering on his beloved Kentucky Wildcats.   Twitter: @JoshACorman

Ok, fellow readers, for the first time in about five years, I’m going on a beach vacation. Sand, sun, the creeping fear that I’ll be bitten or stung by something every time I wade into the ocean; the whole nine yards.

And with any beach vacation worth its salt comes one pressing question: what do I take to read? If, like me, you’ve got a TBR pile taller than a haughty giraffe, making such a selection is anxiety-inducing at best and flatly terrifying at worst. So how does one cut through the potential pain of identifying the book(s) that will serve as their beachside companion for (in my case) a week’s worth of beachside lounging?

I propose using a series of smaller questions to get at the answer to our one, big, very important question.

1. Capital-L Literature or nah?

This is a good first question because it’s the most general. There are lots of different definitions for “Literature,” and it’s entirely possible you reject them all. That’s cool.

Because the issue here is not about a book’s “worth.” This question shouldn’t be translated as “hard vs. easy” or “heavy vs. light” or even “serious vs. non-serious.” Instead, think of it like this: a vacation may represent for you a considerably larger amount of unbroken reading time than you’ve had in a while.

If that’s the case, this question really boils down to your larger reading goals. If there’s an acknowledged literary classic out there that you’ve wanted to read for a while, a vacation might give you the chance to devote the time and attention you might not be able to give it under other circumstances.

But if the “classics” create an unwelcome sense of expectation and pressure in your mind, or you just aren’t hung up on all those books you “should” read, you may not want to introduce that into what’s supposed to be a relaxing endeavor.

2. One monster or a few little fish?

The last time I went to the beach, I took with me Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. I know, right? That book, while brilliant in many ways, is dark, dense, and gi-freaking-gantic. I finished it, but by the end I was exhausted. Not only was the book’s content a lot to deal with, but I put so much pressure on myself to finish the entire book that I felt compelled to forego other vacation-y activities (swimming in the ocean, interacting with other humans, etc.) to stave off a feeling of failure.

Now, that’s not to say diving into one enormous book isn’t the way to go; it’s just that nobody wants their beach read to feel like a chore. It might be wise to keep a couple of shorter options in your suitcase in case your longer choice starts to feel daunting. Not only does it give you an out, but it can also make it feel like you’re getting a lot more reading done, since progress on a 250-pager is a whole lot easier to see.

3. Digital or paper?

I swear I’m not going to mention the way books smell.

No, this question isn’t about the future of reading, it’s about the practicality of each medium given your travel methods and general level of clumsiness. If you’re flying, taking paper books might be a non-starter. Books take up a lot of space, after all, and they’re heavy too. That can mean baggage fees or even some tough decisions about whether you can get by with just one pair of pants for your entire trip. A tablet or e-reader is probably your best bet if luggage space is at a premium.

If you’re going the Griswold route and driving to your destination, however, I say load up! Feel free to take a small library along with you, just to give yourself some options. And throw that tablet in there too, just to be safe.

No matter which you choose, invest in some waterproof plastic bags to prevent your beach read from becoming an irreparably waterlogged read. Nothing puts a damper on an ocean front view like not having a book to hold up in front of it.

4. Wheelhouse pick or envelope-pusher?

Do you want to use your change of scenery to broaden your bookish horizons, or do you want to  read (or maybe even re-read) something that you know is right up your alley? On the one hand, maybe a more restful locale will provide the perfect opportunity for you to dive into that genre or author you’ve been meaning to try for months. On the other, maybe you want your reading choice to feel as comfortable as the ocean breeze.

If you do happen to be in the mood to try something a little different for your trip, might I introduce you to our Read Harder challenge?

5. Backlist or Next Big Thing?

I’ll admit that I’m not what you’d call a cutting-edge reader. That book that everybody’s talking about? I might get to it in about a year. See, I rely (as perhaps many of you do) on my Book Riot cohorts to keep me up-to-date on the can’t miss books of the moment, even if I’m hopelessly slow in getting around to reading them. (This is what TBR piles are for, right?)

As a result, I’m often tempted to halt this vicious cycle by bringing a shiny new release with me on vacation since it feels like a good opportunity to act like a reader who’s in tune with what’s hot in the reading world for a change.

But then again, my shelf is littered with backlist titles that I bought with the best of intentions, only to watch them languish for months (or even years!). Won’t I kick myself if I pass up such a golden opportunity to move one or two of them into the “read” column?

In truth, the only wrong choice here (and for any of these questions, honestly) are ones that don’t end in my reading a book that I enjoy. To make sure that doesn’t happen, I asked myself these questions and decided to read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

Or possibly The Nix by Nathan Hill.

Or maybe The Sword of Shannara trilogy by Terry Brooks.

Ok, maybe I should, in the words of the immortal Brian McKnight, start back at one.