Opinion: The ideal beach read? It's not what you'd expect

?url=https%3A%2F%2Fcalifornia times brightspot.s3.amazonaws.com%2F91%2F09%2F07c8fc7b44268904cb0b2c81891d%2Fla photos 1staff 514569 la me neighborhood community 62 ajs

I’ve been a reader for nearly all of my life, yet I always feel perplexed at the beginning of summer, when the term “beach reads” enters the chat. During the year’s colder months, bookworms are envisioned as contemplative folk who drink hot tea and snuggle up in leather-bound chairs with the complete works of the Brontë sisters. But as summer begins, our tea is supposed to become iced, our chairs foldable, and the Brontës are exchanged for something light, romantic, fizzy and fun.

Yet I seem to be off schedule. As a college professor, I prefer to dig into lighthearted reads during the school year, when I need a break from reality. The semester that just ended was especially challenging, so relaxing with rom-coms and other books often categorized as beach reads was just the kind of entertainment my brain deserved at the end of each day. I felt slightly out of the loop hearing other readers discuss the weighty books of the season, but I knew I needed the escape lighter books gave me.

Yet as the sun begins to scorch, I find myself drawn to those heavier reads. Perhaps because I have more mental bandwidth, what I want as I huddle beneath a beach umbrella is an honest-to-goodness downer, something thick, well-written and very sad. I want to see tragic mistakes and learn meaningful lessons. In the summer, when it seems like other readers want books with a happy ending, I want to rue humanity’s foibles while walking along the shore … as I dig into a large ice cream cone.

I can trace this back to a summertime trip I took to London with my father when I was 21. On the flight from Pittsburgh, I dived into Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” the deeply unsettling account of a 1996 tragedy on Mount Everest, which left five people dead and many others guilt-ridden. It was, as my students say, unputdownable, and I read into the night even after we checked into our hotel, thoroughly messing up my sleep schedule for the rest of the vacation.

Groggy as I was, I couldn’t stop thinking about the terrible choices that the book described and how fragile life seemed in the wake of reading it. I felt chastened by the knowledge of how close we often are to ruin, which made the sights and sounds of my trip more vivid. The tragedies in the book gave me the sensation of somehow being more alive. And my hubris was checked. Let others climb mountains; I was happy to explore a decadent Eton Mess.

Since then, I’ve made a habit of reading downers in the summer. Dave Cullen’s astonishingly well-reported and chilling “Columbine accompanied me on a Parisian jaunt. I took Sheri Fink’s “Five Days at Memorial,” a masterpiece about a hospital in New Orleans before, during and after Hurricane Katrina, with me on a family trip through the Maritime Provinces of Canada. I delved into Michael Shaara’s Gettysburg-set novel “The Killer Angels” on a beach vacation in Cape May, N.J., ruminating on Pickett’s Charge while I searched for sea glass.

Each of these books drew me in with their exhaustive research, deep knowledge of place and expert craftsmanship. And I learned! The facts of each tragedy, of course, but also about the darkness of the human soul and, in moments, the lights of hope that break through that cloud cover. While I didn’t envy those characters their calamities, I did feel grateful for coming as close as I could to witnessing what they had endured, and how (if) they survived. And then I left those worlds behind for the consolations of Skee-ball or barbecue.

I realize now that my summer reads may be out of step with many others’, but we all are, I hope, transported by our picks, because that’s what good literature can do.

So this year I’ll be hunkering down on the beach with a book about the opioid crisis while others along the shore are reading celebrity memoirs and romance novels. But instead of letting my seasonal preferences make me feel like an outsider, perhaps I’ll take note of what my neighbors are reading and keep a list for the fall. Then, when another semester begins and my work life becomes more stressful, I’ll know exactly which book to escape into for fun and froth … as I pull my afghan up to my chin and take a sip of piping hot tea.

Shannon Reed is a professor and the director of undergraduate studies for the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. Her latest book is “Why We Read: On Bookworms, Libraries, and Just One More Page Before Lights Out.”

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top