Updated: Oct 23, 2020
Sizzling summer reads have been around for more than a century
The Seduction of “Beach Reads”
Listen for a moment. Can you hear the never-ending, ocean-waves luring you away from your life? If you take a deep breath, can you smell the salt and the sea? Do your feet feel warm from the sand that curves to your arch and tingles your toes?
Ah. The beach. For a landlocked Midwestern girl, the beach has always been a magical place. One of my most vivid fantasies is having enough money to rent a cottage on an isolated beach and sit for days reading, alone with my thoughts and the words on a page, listening to the ocean roar.
My stack of beach reads would be high. My desire to read would be limitless.
The Interesting History of “Beach Reads”
Around 1900, the vacation industry began. Katy Waldman, wrote in “The Invention of the Beach Read” that steamships and railroads made travel easy. Many city workers had enough income to escape the cities and flee to coastal towns during the summer months, inspired by the articles on camping, resort getaways, mineral springs, and the benefits of the great outdoors that appeared in newspapers and magazines.
The artist Winslow Homer presented calming illustrations of the seaside in the pages of Harper’s Weekly, cementing the idea of idle strolls on the beach and afternoons of leisurely reading.
The publishing industry obliged. Publishers began creating special lists of summer reads for the affluent vacationers. They pulled backlisted books and promoted them as summer reads. They even created a series of “reads” for an entire summer season at the shore.
Publishers targeted the monied society-folk, changing the perception of fiction reading. Novels, once considered vulgar and tasteless, became an acceptable past-time for the elite class. They also started reflecting the genteel life of wealth and leisure.
Books for Idle Hours: Nineteenth-Century Publishing and the Rise of Summer Reading by Donna Harrington-Lueker investigates the rise of “beach reads” and the backlash against it.
“Books for Idle Hours is especially interesting on the emergence of a new type of textual diversion: the American summer novel . . . it takes these books — and the culture that shaped them, and the culture they shaped — seriously, even while acknowledging how transitory they were.” — The New Yorker
Contemporary beach reads
The Victorian era may have ushered in the summer reading craze, but the term “beach reads” came into popular use during the 1990s. Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist used it as a marketing term, a term that slid into the popular lexicon around the mid-1990s.
Booksellers, publishers, and marketers have annually, aggressively promoted their Summer Reading Lists. The Hottest Beach Reads. The Sizzlers of Summer.
The marketing push for beach reads goes back to my fantasy — and what must be the fantasy of others, too: to spend time on a beautiful beach, totally lost and alone in a compelling story.
What makes a beach read a beach read, anyway?
Ask around. “What is your idea of a great beach read?” and you’ll get dozens of answers. Some people think that a beach read has to be a thriller. Some say a mystery. Others, a romance.
Some people don’t believe that a good beach read is anything more than a book with an intense plot. Something fast and furious, a page-turner in any genre. Susan Kehoe, the managing partner of Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware suggests,
“In my mind, a beach read is something that’s “unputdownable,” whatever that means to you. We have a table up front that’s beach-themed — lots of blue and white covers, lots of paperbacks that people want to pick up and grab, lots of Elin Hilderbrand ….”
The genre may not even be a defining trait of a beach read anymore since many contemporary books blend multiple strategies. Consider the popularity of Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing. Is that a romance? A mystery? A botanical study? A coming-of-age book?
Does a “beach read” have to be set on a beach or an island? Does it have to have a “warm” setting? Can you have a beach read that takes place in the Arctic? (Maybe you’d feel cooler in the burning blaze of sunlight if you’re reading about an icy climate?)
A beach read often does have a vacation theme. Sometimes the setting is in a resort, on a ship, or camping and hiking in the wilderness.
But can you be absorbed by a book that has nothing to do with vacations and warm weather? Yes. So is any book that captures your full attention and compels you to read for hours a beach read?
Since 1900, publishers have targeted women audiences with the beach reads, playing on the idea of sunbathing females flipping pages in a paperback novel. But that’s a stereotype. Women AND men read on the beach. They might read different things, but the act of reading is not gender-specific.
Interestingly, the category of “thrillers” is often cited as a beach-read, and paperback novels by authors like James Patterson, Lee Child, David Baldacci, and Michael Connelly are frequently seen on beach chairs across the continent, pages being flipped by men and women in equal numbers.
In the past, beach reads were assumed to be light-hearted, escapist literature without much substance. Today, many people prefer to read something profound and deep as they absorb the sound and sun of the surf.
(Isn’t there a scene in Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night where a woman is translating French cookbooks on the beach?) That does not sound like fun to me, but it may be titillating for her!
Some authors are insulted when their book is listed as a “beach read” because they think it implies a superficial read for women. As Katy Waldman points out,
“Seriousness” tends to be in the eye of the beholder. It takes skill to write appealing, enjoyable, accessible fiction, too, as most commercial novelists will insist to their dying day.
But perhaps there is room for more definition creep. More than a few highly regarded things have been called beach reads over the years, with authors such as Thomas Pynchon and Donna Tartt coming under the beach umbrella. Literary novelists who have a strong handle on plot are often characterized as good vacation reads, because they manage to transport you elsewhere, away from the petty facts of ordinary life.”
I’m still holding onto my fantasy of a secluded beach, warm sunshine, and dozens of books in multiple genres by various authors in diverse settings stacked next to me.
All books are great beach reads to me.
Find more great reads in Book Talk.