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NPR listeners fudge about best beach books

July 29, 2009

The friendly folks at NPR have posted the 100 Best Beach Books Ever, the results of an audience poll. Some 16,000 people cast 136,000 votes to come up with a list that can only be termed…dubious. Far be it from me to accuse NPR listeners of naming books they think they should read at the beach, rather than the books they actually read, but suspicion raises it’s ugly head right in the top 10:

Sure, the Harry Potter series at No. 1? No question. Bridget Jones’s Diary No. 4? Of course. Fried Green Tomatoes No. 9? Yes.

But To Kill a Mockingbird at no. 2? Maybe… The Great Gatsby at no. 7? Unlikely. Pride and Prejudice no. 5? Impossible.

Some paragons may be capable of taking in Austen’s intricate comedy and Regency language in the presence of suntan lotion, but not many. And the list gets only more fanciful as it goes on: The Lord of the Rings at no. 18? East of Eden at 32? One Hundred Years of Solitude at 35?! Anna Karenina at 42?!?

I defy anyone this side of Louise Brown, the 91-year-old Scottish lady who’s read 25,000 library books since 1946 (12 a week lately), to actually absorb Wuthering Heights (76), The Fountainhead (67), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (90) or All the Pretty Horses (83) while baking on a towel with gulls calling and children laughing, the surf shushing in and out, teenagers tossing frisbees and kicking sand into your picnic basket, and nearly naked people of both sexes sauntering by.

Of course, some of NPR’s respondents were honest, nominating such fare as Twilight (30), The Red Tent (33), The Thorn Birds (39), Pillars of the Earth (41), or Jaws (62)

A beach book is a close relation to the “airport book,” something fun, usually romantic or suspenseful, that can be absorbed without too much concentration. When I was young and callow, I scoffed at this notion, thinking I should be able to read the same book in the sand as on my couch. One day I put this to the test with Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. Not a lot of reading got done.

Today, my beach list would start with, say, Elmore Leonard’s Gold Coast, or maybe Michael Crichton’s Congo, Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice, Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios. Perhaps a short story collection from Patricia Highsmith, or some Golden Age sci-fi by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov or (bliss!) Ray Bradbury.

You’ll notice a lot of pulp in that mixture. I might toss in some ’60s and ’70s pop best sellers by the likes of James Michener, Leon Uris, Allen Drury, Irving Wallace, or Robert Crichton, whose The Secret of Santa Vittoria is great, skillful and undemanding fun.

But that’s just me. What’s your list of all-time best beach books?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean permalink
    July 29, 2009 12:32 pm

    Beach Authors I Read On The Beach And In My Mahogany Paneled Study: Stephen King; Thomas Harris; Kinky Friedman; Dan Brown; Clive Barker; Peter Straub; Elmore Leonard; John Le Carre; William Gibson.

    I once tried reading a Saul Bellow short story on the beach. Bikinis obstructed my view.

  2. rachel permalink
    July 29, 2009 2:04 pm

    I agree that it seems that NPR listeners put down what they think they should be reading at the beach rather than what they actually do. I think that you definitely need something light and fun to keep you distracted, like some of the things you mentioned, and as Sean mentioned Stephen King or Harry Potter, anything that will grab your attention and refuse to let it go regardless of all the distractions of people at the beach and sand and water and the heat, oh my gosh the heat.

    However, I happen to think that airplane books are a bit of a different story. I used to think that I wouldn’t possibly be able to pay attention to something while in the airport or on the plane but as long as I am involved in the book already I have found that I can practically read anything. Especially once on the plane it is easy to tune everything out, I think at least partially due to the high level of airplane noise that dims conversations and all other noise, and focus on what I am reading. And when I get to my destination I am shocked out how much I read during my three hour flight. I’m not saying that I could read philosophy, but I could definitely read Jane Austen. On my most recent flight I read Cheri and while working on my thesis I remember reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I understand the comparison, but at least for me airport/airplane reading is in a slightly different category than beach reading.

    • July 29, 2009 3:57 pm

      Rachel, you make a good point about the difference between beach and airline reading. I admit I was going on the stereotype of the airport book, but my experience mirrors yours. I’ve read some pretty demanding books on airplanes in recent years, including Jan de Hartog’s spiritual memoir A View of the Ocean. Indeed, reading on airplanes is one of the keenest joys of travel.

  3. Alina Interián permalink
    July 29, 2009 3:33 pm

    Coincidentally, I am packing my bags for my vacation next week, and choosing what I will take along to read. I agree that something light and a “fast read” usually works best when one is trying to disconnect and rest the brain! Right now I am planning to take a novel in Spanish by Argentinian writer Andres Neuman and will probably end up also taking some sort of mystery in English. Any suggestions?

    I agree with Rachel that reading on a plane is different. I am able to concentrate more. The last time I was on a trans-Atlantic flight, I was able to read two entire books by contemporary Egyptian writers.

    • July 29, 2009 3:53 pm

      Alina, there are so many good, literate mysteries in English, I hardly know where to begin. Almost anything by Patricia Highsmith, Eric Embler, Ruth Rendell, Richard Price, George Pelecanos, Laura Lipman, Dennis Lehane, Georges Simenon (yes!), or Nick Stone, the Scottish-Haitian novelist who lives in London and writes crime novels set in Miami, would suffice.

      Gee. I wish I were going on vacation.

  4. July 29, 2009 3:53 pm

    Okay, okay: Simenon is technically French, but I read him in translation…

  5. Thomas permalink
    August 4, 2009 2:28 pm

    Last book I read on the beach was Death Kit by Susan Sontag so it goes at the top of the list. I’ve enjoyed heady titles such as Great Short Works of Dostoevsky, Albert Camus “The Fall” despite all the distractions and between volleyball matches. Though I do come back to earth just long enough to blast off again with my all time favorite Arthur C. Clarke. I have read “Good Omens” by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett while on the beach 3 times, come to think of it will pull it off the shelf once again after I finish “illywacker” by Peter Carey if sand and sea water haven’t completely ruined it from the last field trip. Ebooks and beach do not mix, as sad as it may be to have a loved book destroyed iphones and kindles are not cheap. Douglas Adams also does well while seaside. However, if the company I share and the conversation engaging enough no book could hold me.

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