Sunday, June 8, 2008


Well, now, here's a question: What's a "beach read?" What's a good beach read? And what are some of your favorites of the species?

Once in awhile, I find OUTLANDER on someone's list of "great beach reads," but usually none of the other books. (This sticks in my mind, because one of the early public appearances I did when OUTLANDER was released, was a "Great Beach Read" program done with several other authors for a public library—wherein we were supposed to talk about our own books, but also give a list of other books we thought were great beach reads. I remember the occasion, because it's the first—and thankfully one of very few—occasion on which I forgot I was supposed to be somewhere. I was in fact shopping for bunk-beds with my husband—and my children all "turned" last month, being now 26, 24, and 22, so you know it was awhile ago—when he got a frantic call (he having one of the new-fangled car-phones) from his secretary, to the effect that the Glendale (I think) Public Library was looking for me, and why wasn't I on their stage? We rushed there instantly, and I made it in time to be last on the program, but still, Highly Traumatic. I shudder when I hear the words "Beach Read.")

Now, personally, I've always figured that "great beach read" is one of those left-handed compliments. It implies that the book is a page-turner, all right—but probably not something filled with Deep Meaning, as my husband says ("Does this have lots of Deep Meaning?" he asks, suspiciously, when I hand him a new excerpt to read. "Or does something actually happen?"). Nobody describes WAR AND PEACE as a great beach read (though in fact it is, size quite aside. It actually is a page-turner, though the translation makes a difference. I got an edition translated by someone whose first language was apparently French, resulting in male characters not infrequently threatening to give each other "a bang on the snout!" Which was mildly distracting. But I digress…).

The implication is that the book should be entertaining, but something you can easily put down in order to play volleyball, and it won't really matter if you doze off and let it fall on your stomach where it will absorb sun-tan lotion and all the pages become transparent. And when you leave the beach, you can toss it in the trash can if you've finished it, and into your trunk if you haven't, there to be ignored until next Thanksgiving, when you discover it while cramming your trunk with turkey, bags of fresh cranberries, and whatever other family-specific food you consider indispensable to the occasion (my stepmother's family traditionally serves buttered rutabagas at Thanksgiving. I consider this perverse, but as long as I'm not personally required to eat rutabagas—and no force of nature would compel me, I assure you—more power to them).

On the other hand—a beach read has the assurance of being entertaining, and of probably being popular. A beach read is something that everybody (in a given summer) is reading. Which is of course Highly Desirable, if you are the author of said book. I mean, if it comes right down to it, do you want the New York Times to say your book is "a brilliant, if depressing, portrait of humanity, filled with insights on dependency and longing,"—or do you want it to say, "#1" on the Bestsellers list? Yeah, me too.

(Mind, if anybody happens to want to look for Deep Meaning in my books, it's there [g]—no, really—but I do think there ought to be a Good Story on the uppermost layer of a book.)

Now, I personally am no judge of a beach read, because a) I read all the time, regardless of location, and b) I don't live near a beach, and c) if I did live near a beach, I wouldn't be sitting on it, reading. I hate sitting in the sun; it makes me sweaty and dizzy, and the last thing I'd do is read a book while doing it. But tastes differ.

IF we were to define a "beach read" simply as a book that's very entertaining, but "light" (in the literary-fiction sense of the word)—what would you pick? (Or if you define a beach read differently, how would you define it?)

The nearest equivalent of a "beach read" for me, is probably a "plane book." I.e., what you read on a plane to distract your mind from the knowledge that there is nothing under you but 30,000 feet of thin air (though my husband, who flies planes, assures me that air is really much more substantial than it appears). That would be things like Nora Roberts romances and futuristic mysteries, Michael Connelly thrillers, Janet Evanovich's comic romance/mysteries, Anne Perry's Victorian mysteries, John LeCarre' spy/intrigue novels, and the like (I gather I'm not alone in these preferences, since these are the books commonly found in airport bookstores). Not THE LOVELY BONES; I read half of that on a long flight to Sydney, left it on the plane, and never felt the urge to get another copy and read the rest of it. I know a number of folks loved it, but I thought it was hollow and mildly repellant—though I freely admit this impression may have had more to do with the effects of being on an airplane for fourteen hours, than with the book itself.

(I should note here that while I have referred to the books I read on planes as "toilet paper books," this is not a diss. It's because such books perform an indispensable function—but you use them only once.)

Speaking historically, though—it seems to me that many of the great "beach reads" of the last 15-20 years have indeed been "big" books: James Clavell's SHO-GUN (one of my all-time favorite books ever!) or TAI-PAN, Judith Krantz's SCRUPLES, PRINCESS DAISY, etc., James Michener's monster sagas, etc. These are books that would get you through an entire vacation.

I don't know whether it's the current economic climate affecting publishing (paper costs keep rising, as does the cost of shipping books), or whether there's a change in public taste, but you see fewer "big" books than you used to. (Mind, when a new "big" book appears, it gets a lot of attention—vide THE HISTORIAN, or MR. NORELL AND WHOEVER THE OTHER GUY WAS—on the sheer basis of size. The assumption being, I imagine, that if a publisher was willing to pay to print this, it must be good. Sometimes this assumption is true; sometimes not so much.) What's the "beach read" of this summer? (I've been so busy lately I haven't paid any attention to publishing news at all. I'm also neck-deep in the research for ECHO IN THE BONE, plus a "Lord John" short piece I'm doing for an anthology, that involves yet another chapter of the Seven Years War. My guess is that neither Francis Parkman's MONTCALM AND WOLFE, nor Kenneth Webb's THE GROWTH OF SCOTTISH NATIONALISM would be in most people's beach-bags.)

So…what's in your beach-bag?