In defence of the beach read: what we get wrong about holiday books

·4 min read
The beach read is one of the most sneered at subcategories of contemporary fiction but it’s vital (Getty)
The beach read is one of the most sneered at subcategories of contemporary fiction but it’s vital (Getty)

If you want a perfect beach body, just bring your body to the beach.” Or so said some very wise person with exemplary values. Probably Oprah.

If only it worked that way for books. If you want a perfect beach read, take your time and choose wisely. Or else wind up like me on a recent Hamptons weekend, flipping tearfully through All the Lovers In the Night, Mieko Kawakami’s lonely meditation on drinking too much in Tokyo. My friends who chose better – a Reese Witherspoon book club pick; Sally Rooney – were emotionally capable of reading out the funny bits, even commenting idly on the tide and how popular pickleball is getting.

The beach read is one of the most sneered at subcategories of contemporary fiction, like “chick lit”, vampire romances and macho spy-thrillers featuring leads named Jack. It’s also vital. I’ve ruined pleasant afternoons on the sand by bringing along books I felt guilty I hadn’t yet read, instead of books I was eager to. Ultimately, though, treating a holiday like a chance to catch up on the cultural syllabus is a recipe for misspent baggage allowance. We all have our own personal Infinite Jest, by which I mean an uncracked book that mocks us as we drag it futilely from beach to beach. Mine happens to be Infinite Jest.

But take the right book, and it’ll become one of your most evocative reading memories. I was wearing a dark green one-piece at sunset on the rocky Croatian coast when I finished The Fault in Our Stars, John Green’s young-adult tear-jerker about two teens with cancer. I remember the chunky font of Mary Higgins Clark’s name on the mysteries my mother packed for days at the Jersey Shore. When I see Higgins Clark’s novels on the shelves of library sell-offs now, I can hardly believe the pages aren’t glued together with sun cream.

So what is a “beach read” exactly? It’s more of a vibe than a genre, but generalisations can be made. Books that pair well with tiki drinks tend to be long on story and light on ailing children, though The Fault in Our Stars is an exception because it’s big on jokes. Jokes are terrific by the sea. Genre fiction performs robustly under sun-drenched conditions: crime, romance, fantasy. After devouring Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass in the Caribbean (published as Northern Lights in the UK), I was so desperate to start the sequel I attempted a Spanish translation called La Daga – the only copy I could scrounge up at the time.

Crucially – and this is misunderstood, I think – a beach read doesn’t have to be a “guilty pleasure” from the two-for-a-tenner table. Sprawling, captivating epics of all brow heights – from Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet to its pulpy, ecstatic cousin The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough – are perfect for long mornings spent slowly turning pages.

And yet some of the best beach reads are unputdownable romps. Summers ago, I inhaled one Hunger Games novel a day for three days sitting beneath a striped umbrella. And I distinctly remember calling out The Diana Chronicles’gossipy details from my beach blanket to anyone who’d listen, simply because I could not be alone with them. (“Did you know he gave Camilla a bracelet engraved with GF? For Girl Friday!”) Come to think of it, Tina Brown is a veritable queen of the beach read. Consider The Vanity Fair Diaries, her tell-all about working at the iconic American magazine, or The Palace Papers, her recent tea-spilling take on Meghan Markle. I think Brown would be disappointed if her pages weren’t warped with salty water by summer’s end.

Which brings us to the number one quality uniting beach reads across genres, from potboilers to bildungsroman. Above else, a beach read must be all-consumingly dishy. Because the beach is hard work. The sun is baking you alive from the outside in. Multiple times a day you’re forced to choose between holding it and burning the soft bottoms of your feet to reach the toilets. The people nearby have their radio tuned up too loud. Seagulls want your snacks; kids are throwing sand. The beach read is your armour against the chaos of the beach. It’s the escape from your escape from daily life.

So when you next pack your bags for someplace coastal, I beg you to forget the classic novel you always meant to read, as well as the hottest new release about millennial ennui (unless it’s Rooney because, again, of the jokes). SPF 45 and any book with sunglasses on the cover is all the protection you’ll need.