Blame it on Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Julia Keller. It was a steamy 2009 Chicago summer when she encouraged us to read a book over summer vacation. It should be something light on plot and a bit savory and it certainly shouldn’t sit as heavy as the lobster roll with fries you just ate. The “beach read” was born.
Beach reads offer a sweet lick of mystery and romance with a lot of froth. No one is fooling anyone here: in six months this summer’s crop will be at the library book sale. The formulaic characters are pretty much the same: a spunky heroine with long hair and no cellulite, a muscular male with wavy hair and a mysterious past, a cove, a beach, a summer house, a bed and breakfast, a creepy mansion on a hill overlooking a cove or a beach, money, and at least one car you will never be able to afford. Girl road trips are big this year, so are some version of family dysfunction or rediscovery around the campfire.
Chucking the coastal theme, there’s the “urban romp” sub-genre. Everyone is engaged in self-serving ennui while earning a six-figure income and dreaming of escape to a simpler life in a small town with at least one interesting reclusive local. Our protagonist will buy the local hardware store and run for town council while solving the unusual number of murders in town. No one will notice the murder rate sharply increased with this newcomer’s arrival.
What you’re not likely to see is anyone overweight, or living in a trailer park, or driving a beater box, or unemployed or disabled, except as a plot device to elicit laughs. Beach reads tend heavily toward vanilla-flavored white middle class self-serving schlock. If there was ever a case for keeping cheap paperbacks flowing, beach reads are it.
Let’s up our game. It was 1851 and after a year and a half of writing with a quill pen by candlelight, Harper & Brothers, London, published a story by 31-year-old Herman Melville chronicling the tale of a whaling expedition to the South Seas, an obsessed sea captain and a white whale. The story was narrated by a novice crew member, Ishmael. Based on the real-life white whale, Mocha Dick, and the sinking of the whaler, Essex, the 800 pages of Moby Dick remain the singular most compelling narrative of whaling and obsession in literature. The first and perhaps the best beach read.
It’s interesting this acknowledged Great American Novel can be had for as little as $3 while some transient bit of fluff will set you back $25, if you want a hardcover, or less if you want the e-reader edition. Does Moby Dick qualify as a beach read? If you consider the elements of a beach read are there: angst, friendship, the fine line between love and obsession, money, exotic locales, colorful characters, the sea, the beach, a couple of inns, a coastal town or two, and something menacing. It may not have long-legged blondes or hedge fund brokers but it does have tattooed harpooners and men of the sea.
If stories of the sea take you to a place of endless summers and danger, consider this: Peter Benchley’s Jaws did for sharks what Moby Dick did for whales. There are parallel plot devices in both novels. Jaws had an out-sized murderous shark, an obsessed shark fisherman looking for revenge, a great struggle at sea that resulted in the death of the shark fisherman and the shark, and the same level of anatomical detail that Melville used when he described the whale. If you saw the films, you watched Gregory Peck rage across the deck of the Pequot and Quint across the deck of the Orca. You knew these two would come to a sticky end.
There aren’t any rules about how long it should take to read a beach book, except maybe the self-imposed one that says, “I have to finish this thing before vacation is over.” Sorry not sorry, Moby Dick won’t be finished with you before you head back home. And maybe Jaws made you wonder if you wear the slinky black bathing suit that makes you look like a seal and go for a splash, will you catch the attention of a Great White migrating up the coast? Why mull over human angst when you can have terrifying sea life to worry about. Nothing beats sitting on a beach looking out over the water and wondering.
Reading should never be a slog. It should take us to places we will never see and to adventures we could never have. If we agree on that, open your beach bag and I’ll drop in a few of my favorite summer reads: Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Jaws by Peter Benchley, and In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick, winner of the National Book Award in 2016. The Essex inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. The Perfect Storm, by author Sebastian Junger, the true story of the loss at sea of the fishing vessel, Andrea Gail, and her crew, during the “no name storm” that raged along the eastern seaboard during the last week of October, 1991. And Typhoon, by Joseph Conrad, a tale of human folly steering a course into the face of a South Pacific typhoon.
We both know all of these were made into films; but, do this first: take these voyages waiting for you this summer in the pages of five near perfect books. Can you feel the salt spray? Did you check the horizon for a rim of clouds that signals a storm? Remember the old saying, “Books falls open, you fall in.”
Photo credit: Ricardo Martinez