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The Anti Beach Read

Summer is finally here and now is the time of year when every book-related website publishes its own spin on the beloved “beach read.” Many readers start to look for stories that aren’t too weighty or serious but still keep their attention. The plots are usually fast-moving and the ends are often happy. These books are meant to satisfy and relax but not ruin the good vibes of your vacation. In theory, this is a wonderful idea. In practice, I’m terrible at finding good beach reads.

I’ve never been able to master the art of the beach read. They truly sound wonderful. I could cross off some titles from my GoodReads yearly challenge with books that are light and not too difficult to finish. I could actually relax on the beach with a book! I try. I really do. Every year, I scour the shelves at the library, looking for titles that will keep me afloat during the summer months, for books without tortured main characters or depressing subjects. Each year, I fail. Sometimes I end up reading the classics or occasionally a thick, highly involved young adult fantasy novel. I will give myself a little credit: at least my anti-beach reads are occasionally set in hot climates. That is sort of appropriate for summer, right?

At the start of my first summer as a librarian in Norwood five years ago, I was organizing the school summer reading books assigned to high school students and noticed Jane Eyre was an option for incoming sophomores. I was never assigned Jane Eyre during my own academic career and never really went out of my way to read anything from the Bronte sisters unless a teacher specifically directed me to. I grabbed a copy, thinking my summer reading could benefit from some good writing. Further research indicated that some scholars think Jane Eyre was the prototype for the modern young adult novel, one of my favorite genres. My interest was piqued and I decided Jane Eyre was going to be my beach read! Meaning I would read it. At the beach.

I spent the next few sunny days plowing through Jane Eyre at the beach, occasionally taking my iPhone out of its plastic bag protector and using my newly downloaded dictionary app to look up the many unknown words I encountered. This is what I mean by failing at the beach read. People who put together beach read lists do not choose titles that require a reader to use a dictionary app in order to fully appreciate the dialogue. Furthermore, Jane Eyre takes place in dark and rainy England. Wild storms and drizzly weather provide the atmospheric setting for this coming of age story, making it decidedly not very summery. But the story and characters are so absorbing and compelling that I was not deterred by the book’s length or dreary setting.

In contrast, last summer’s choice of Calypso by David Sedaris had a more appropriate setting. Like most of his writing, Sedaris includes a number of humorous essays on his family. The main thread running through Calypso is Sedaris’ impulse buy of a summer home on the North Carolina shore. He envisions wonderful family holidays where siblings and their families will gratefully gather and thank him for his prodigious generosity. They will enjoy each other’s company and everyone will get along. Sedaris’ dreams are shattered the minute he announces the purchase to his family and they argue over what bawdy name they should give the new beach house.

While Sedaris’ essays are funny in a darkly comic way, his real purpose is exploring what it means to grow older with siblings, and dealing with the death of a family member. His light tone adds a sense of irony to sad topics he covers, including the mental health issues and suicide of one of his sisters. Definitely not traditional beach read material. But Sedaris’ ability to find humor in every day, mundane things shows what a coping mechanism it truly is during life’s difficult patches. He doesn’t shy away from the hard parts of middle age and relationships but he never leaves his own character unexamined. Of course, he manages to always find a way to include himself as one of the targets of his vicious wit.

When I look over my reading history, especially my summer reading history, I’m forced to realize that I’ll never be a beach reader. I’ll read at the beach for sure. But if my book past suggests anything, it’s that I just don’t gravitate toward the light and fluffy. Not that there’s anything wrong with light and fluffy. If you love a good beach read, keep clicking through all the links for summer’s hottest book lists. But if you are like me, accept that your reading habits aren’t going to change simply because it’s summer and keep plowing through your copy of War and Peace.

Kate Tigue is the Head of Youth Services at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, MA. Look for her article in the June 20, 2019 issue of the Transcript and Bulletin.


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