In a 2009 Chicago Tribune article entitled “‘Beach Read’ Takes on New Meaning“, writer Julia Keller muses the concept may have arisen from the lack of things to do on a beach vacation. “People who don’t enjoy splashing in the ocean or sitting in the sun,” she writes, “but who still want to indulge in a family vacation with those who do, require a diversion.” Following Keller’s line of summer being recess time for kids and the few adults lucky enough to get summer Fridays, it makes sense that the season has become equated with the time of year people have time to read for pleasure. But how did summer/beach read become the euphemism for a throwaway or guilty pleasure read?
Keller writes: “a good beach read… [is] commonly employed to describe a brashly captivating and unashamedly shallow novel” — even as she laments this popular definition, confessing, “I’ve always been slightly disappointed, though, at the so-so books allowed to cluster beneath the ‘beach read’ rubric.” Yet, the idea of a beach read as being disposable or even a guilty pleasure calls into question what we (or an anointed they) think is worthy of reading in our not-so-free time; what we want people to know we’ve read or are reading — and the classism embedded in those notions.
First, there’s the issue of dollars and cents. In a recent Huffington Post piece listing “6 Crazy Compelling Paperbacks“, the writer instructs: “Toss them in your beach bag. Throw them in your bike basket. Read ’em, love ’em and leave ’em by the pool.” In other words, it’s okay to toss/throw/leave these lightweight paperback books lying around to get bleached by the sun, water logged, eaten by the dog, or altogether lose these books because they didn’t cost that much in the first place.
Also implied: If you don’t invest (or don’t have) the extra $10-20 to purchase a hardcover, you’re probably okay with the book falling apart. Either way, you’re probably not considering displaying this book in your bookshelf either because your bookshelf is packed with artfully designed, beautifully bound hardcovers, which leads me to the literature distinction.
Dictionary.com (as legit as Oxford or Websters, no?) defines literature as “writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays” while it explains “literary” as “characterized by an excessive or affected display of learning; stilted; pedantic.” The clause in the literature definition — “in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest” — means everything.
Though it’s true that there are certain topics that are permanently and universally interesting to humanity, interest is by nature completely subjective and therefore subject to cultural evaluation. Hence, certain interests are deemed highbrow while others are designated guilty pleasures. We’re all entitled to our opinions as to what falls in which category, but in doing so, we need to acknowledge that classism and many others “isms”, racism and sexism among them, color our estimation.
So, it was interesting to read the recent New York Times piece in which eight acclaimed novelists were asked to share their favorite guilty pleasure beach reads. The Times being as highbrow (my opinion) as they come, the writers surveyed — A.X. Ahmad, NoViolet Buluwayo, Sandra Cisneros, Ben Dolnick, Colum McCann, Nathaniel Rich, Elizabeth Strout, Meg Wolitzer — revealed a diversity of philosophies about the so-called summer read.
For McCann, the boundary is clear. Summer reads are graphic novels, murder mysteries, and “milky-white thigh” stories, and he’ll be reading none of them. “No fifty shades of anything,” he writes, admitting, “Whenever summer rolls around I begin to realize that I’m a complete and utter book snob.”
Meanwhile, Dolnick is all about the murder mystery — a 976-page one based on a true story — which he recommends with this plea to The stereotypical Times reader: “Hear me out.”
In her response, Strout notes the lit-shaming that elicits the plea cum disclaimer cum caveat:
…many years ago when my in-laws took me to a swanky resort and I sat by the pool reading War and Peace. “You’re not really,” said Cousin Harold. “Not really what?” I asked. “Not really going to sit there reading that.” In my memory he seemed genuinely piqued, as though I would spoil the reading pleasure of those around me. I half considered putting a brown bag cover over its flap, but I didn’t have any brown bag, and I sat there for the week engrossed in the book.
Of course, Strout’s shaming was coming from the other direction. She was reading Tolstoy, after all.
But still it’s there, this feeling of being judged by others for the reading material you enjoy and this idea that some reading should be proudly proclaimed while others should make you feel guilty for enjoying. I don’t agree with that notion.
Like Keller, I feel that “once a novel is classified as ‘literature,’ something awful seems to happen; people start revering it and stop reading it. The book is placed on a high shelf, maybe even tucked inside a glass-fronted cabinet, and there it sits — admired to death, in effect. If Woolf still had a say in the matter, I think she’d much prefer glimpsing a copy of To the Lighthouse with a smear of suntan lotion on its crinkled cover or with a bug crushed between pages 101 and 102.”
Which is why I loved Cisneros’ response in the Times’ beach read piece most of all: “I never feel guilty about reading any kind of book. Books are medicine, each one a specific prescription for whatever ails us.” She recommends Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir by the way.