BY MIKE BEEMAN
Here’s part 3 of our Literary Beach Books series. Find the other parts here.
Last summer I thoughtlessly brought the book I happened to be reading along with me to the beach. When a friend asked what my book, Blood Meridian, was about, instead of saying “It’s pretty much the most violent and disturbing book about murder I’ve come across since American Psycho, another terrifying and gruesome book I’ve read for some reason,” I told her it was a book about cowboys and Indians fighting around the Mexican border just before the Civil War.
Then, laying on my towel and trying to read McCarthy’s prose despite the sun, the sand, the hot weather and the good-looking people wearing almost nothing a few feet away, I wished I actually had brought the book she’d imagined from my answer -a fun, easy read- along with me instead. I think I was ill-prepared for beach reading because to me “beach book” means “stupid book.”
A beach book is a summer block-buster starring Nicholas Cage, it’s top 40 radio, it’s reality TV. It’s something you enjoy knowing full-well that it’s stupid, as a kind of indulgence. For some reason I can watch a stupid move and listen to stupid music (in doses) and I can stomach a little reality TV, but reading a bad book just makes me angry.
I’m sure people who have strong opinions about movies, music, and television have a similar problem. So I’m presenting a few “beach books” as I define them: books that are fun to read, can entertain without a requiring huge amount of concentration, and are still “literary” enough to be enjoyed by someone who likes real books, too.
The first two beach book picks I have are actually selections from two authors’ catalogs:
Graham Greene’s “Entertainments.”
Graham Greene was such a snob that he even condescended to himself. In the front of his books Greene lists his fiction under two categories: “Novels” and “Entertainments.” In the “Novel” category you will find the books he is most famous for, like The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, and The Power and the Glory. All serious, literary works. But fortunately Greene also wrote other novels that fall into the crime, spy, and thriller genres, throughout his career. These books, however less-significant he judged them, are often as good as the novels he deemed more worthy.
One of Greene’s great triumphs is that he eventually managed to merge these two divergent strains of his writing into works like The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana, but his earlier forays into genre writing stay closer to their forms. And, given the author, they are much better than the average novels in their genres. I would recommend two especially: The Ministry of Fear and A Gun for Sale (both pictured).
If you are feeling particularly literary, you can also enjoy Brighton Rock, The Quiet American, or The Power and the Glory as entertaining literature.
Early Kurt Vonnegut
My second author for literate beach-reading is Kurt Vonnegut. Like the Greene books above, Vonnegut’s novels are fun, well-written, and still “literary.” I think Vonnegut’s earlier books, such as Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, and, my favorite, Cat’s Cradle, are especially well suited to the kind of reading one does on a beach. These books, with Mother Night excluded, are firmly set in the science fiction genre. With Vonnegut, of course, the novels are more than just thrilling scifi yarns. They are allegories, warnings, and predictions, too. And often funny as hell. (Player Piano and Cat’s Cradle also pictured.)
Some collections of Vonnegut’s non-fiction work, like A Man Without a Country or Palm Sunday, will also make great beach reads, as the essays are short, punchy, and hilarious.
I have to include a more recent book as my last pick. I’m sure you’ve all ready it, but Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi is just about as perfect beach-read for the literate as there is. The short chapters, the plot of the book, the great writing on a sentence-to-sentence level all make it a lot of fun to read at the beach. It won’t put you to sleep as you read in the sun: not the subject or the writing.
The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
You can still read your normal books this summer, of course (If you’re like me you probably read from a couple books at a time anyway) but keep these in mind for your beach-browsing. Save Bolano’s 2666 for your nights at home. And know that whichever literate beach book you chose, you will be as thoroughly entertained as the rest of the crowd while they consume their disposable books.
And just imagine how appealing you will be to the passing English buff, a very attractive member of the opposite sex, who happens to glance at the cover of your book, a raft among a sea of big, shiny hard-cover books, recognizes a favorite authors, stops in his or her flip-flops, and smiles.