Nobody called it that at the time, but the first realistic English novel was a genuine “beach read.” Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, is a tale of exotic adventure literally set on a beach. Three hundred years later, a lot has changed, but we still crave stories with waves crashing on the shore.
My first “beach read” was a shameful, illicit affair. A middle-school classmate with a wild older brother had gotten a hold of a copy of Jaws. In my lily-white innocence, the naked swimmer on the cover of Peter Benchley’s thriller was just as terrifying as the shark soaring up to eat her. Sitting cross-legged in my friend’s attic, I tore through those pages, ricocheting between Thanatos and Eros.
I didn’t know it then, but Jaws spent almost a year on the bestseller list and sold millions of copies. A sexy man vs. monster melodrama set on Long Island, the novel is in many ways the greatest beach read ever — so good, so bad.
Every year with the summer solstice, the sun rises on the ignoble gap between our impressive aspirational reading list and our actual reading list.
We should — we really should — use the long hot days to read Will and Ariel Durant’s classic 11-volume history, The Story of Civilization.
Instead, we'll read a new novel about a sassy pastry chef looking for love in L.A.
The shame of summer reading is almost as old as summer reading itself. It took humanity 200,000 years to produce movable type, widespread literacy, and enough leisure time to enjoy a book. But as soon as people discovered the pleasures of a diverting novel, some starchy scold swooped in to make them feel bad.
Exhibit A: Vicesimus Knox was a British headmaster and prolific essayist in the late 18th century. He was also one of the earliest detractors of an alarming new phenomenon called "summer reading." In seaside resorts, he warned, light books had grown as popular as new dress patterns in London. "There are many who spend much of their time in reading," which sounds like a good thing. Alas, fashionable folks read, "as they play at cards, with no other intention but to pass the time."
Egads — do such indolent fiends really exist?
They do, and Knox draws a harrowing picture of one:
"He can, indeed, on a rainy day, devour half a dozen volumes of summer reading, and be no more incommoded than when he swallows as many jellies and puffs at the fashionable confectioners."
There it is — with a bonus dollop of fat-shaming — the slur that has slid down the centuries toward us: Those who read for "the amusement of the moment," Knox sneered, are engaged in a pastime that tends only "to vitiate their morals, to womanize their spirits."
Such snobbery and misogyny clung to summer reading for decades.
In the late 19th century, as the publishing industry cranked out a vast new selection of popular fiction to toss in the suitcase, Americans were being warned away from the corrupting influence of summer reading. As Donna Harrington-Lueker notes in Books for Idle Hours, a prominent Brooklyn minister told his congregation: “I really believe there is more pestiferous trash read among the intelligent classes in July and August than in all the other ten months of the year.”
We like to imagine that we've moved beyond the sting of those censorious Victorians, but their literary prejudices have left an indelible stain on our tastes.
By the late 20th century, the "beach read" was an unofficial genre, heavily marketed by publishers. The covers of such books signaled their tone and celebrated their content by showing an actual beach, as though to say, "Open here." But in highbrow circles, the term was still toxic. In 1996, Paul Theroux's brother Alexander, writing in Boston magazine, went for the jugular by describing Paul's novels as "beach reads." Reflecting on that review years later, Paul wrote, "It not only condemned my book; it was a bitter attack on my life." Which, frankly, sounds like something the imperiled hero of a beach read would say.
What we read over the summer — our personal beach reading — remains fraught with anxiety about what those choices might suggest about ourselves. When I'm traveling during the summer and mention that I'm a book critic, people frequently apologize for what they like to read. A certain kind of man will invariably feel compelled to assure me that he doesn't read novels because when he reads he "likes to learn something." Parents, meanwhile, get very serious and ask me what their children should read over the summer.
If there were ever a summer to stop apologizing, to stop pretending, and to stop worrying about what we should read, it’s this summer.
As the coronavirus quarantine leaches into June and possibly much further, the meaning of summer itself is in flux — and summer reading feels even more tenuous. Let’s hope Emily Dickinson was right when she wrote, “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away.” For the time being, books are the only frigates we can safely board. No mask required. Bon voyage!