Against Beach Reading

People are self-conscious about what they read. Not everyone, of course, as you might have noticed the last time you traveled. Popular literary taste tends towards the procurable and the disposable. (Surely there’s also some relation between a title’s embossed projection into the third dimension and its sales figures.) But among readers that see reading as something more than a diversion, at least some thought goes towards their choice of literature and, inevitably, if it is to be read in public, what other people will think of it.

If someone perceives that what they’re reading could be judged insufficiently serious, the title can be defended as so-called ‘beach reading,’ a catchall designation for any literature that is, as I interpret it, frivolous, accessible, portable, formulaic, rapid, emotionally (but superficially) stimulating, alternately gory, sexy and indulgent, only accidentally philosophical, political or historical, and often with a twist ending that leaves all parties punished or rewarded and all mysteries resolved or, at least, with the promise of resolution in forthcoming, indistinguishable installments.

Beach reading advertises itself as a necessary alternative to its arduous analogue: what we might call ‘desk reading.’ Desk reading has its place, you see, and it isn’t on the beach or in transit. Were it practical, the concept continues, we would surely all be reading the most erudite and challenging literature on the market. But how could we hope to appreciate it en route, given the distractions of planes, trains and automobiles? Besides, we’re on vacation: why not give our tired minds a rest as well? If we brought desk reading to the beach, we would undermine the whole experience, disturbing the restorative ambiance while degrading the edification that difficult books would otherwise provide if read in a normal, non-beach environment.

In reality, most people don’t read (if they read at all) in a quiet study, dictionary and encyclopedia of literary allusion ready for reference. They read when they have a minute here or there, during a break at work or on their commute. I know someone that reads in front of her television, lowering the book to flip channels or when she senses something of interest on the screen. Also, most people only do beach reading. According to the National Endowment for the Arts Reading at Risk survey, only 56% of Americans managed to read a single book in the last year. How likely is it that the single book was The Post-American World or the new Don Delillo?

The beach reading concept is essentially a marketing masterstroke. Whoever is responsible for its conception has fabricated a flattering but baseless dichotomy: the mentally taxing act of desk reading (which few people engage in) and the ensuing necessity for reprieve (which beach reading accomodates). Beach reading acknowledges the superiority of desk reading, but it doesn’t set itself up as its opponent, merely its relief: ‘Take a load off. Don’t feel guilty about reading this trash – it’s just beach reading.’ They are entirely separate, but symbiotic, pursuits.

Consumers like to do what feels good, and they like to feel good about doing it. Beach reading appeals to that desire. ‘Drinking red wine is good for the health? I think I will have another.’ ‘I have an excuse for reading a non-serious book without seeming superficial? Now that you mention it, I do deserve a break.’ Who’s to blame for this canard? The publishing industry? The self-conscious reader? No one, really. We can’t criticize the industry for providing the people with what they want to read, and we can only with great care criticize the people for reading what they want. As New Yorker film critic David Denby once wrote:

Arguing with pleasure is a mug’s game. If people say that they are having good sex, you can hardly tell them that they should give up lovemaking for sunsets. You can only tell audiences satisfied by Mission: Impossible or Men in Black that there are pleasures they are not experiencing, and then try to say what those pleasures are.

I’ll leave it to the critics to explain why one’s time might be better spent reading Daniel Defoe than Dan Brown. (Sebastian insists that one need only read the first page of The Da Vinci Code to understand.) As screamingly evident as the superiority of some works over others appears, despite technique, despite passion and refinement, despite generations of eloquent, expert conviction, there is no objective foundation upon which one can demonstrate that Chopin is better than ‘Chopsticks.’ Despite even my own preferences, as a student of Aesthetics, that Kantian maxim is my sacred parameter, the one by which everything I write in earnest must abide.

That said, my purpose here rests on the assumption that, even if people will read whatever books they want, they also want those books to be good ones. So, alas, I can only serve to provide practical, subjective advice.

Some books are better to travel with than others. Some books do require more concentration. Einstein on the beach is indeed silly. But a travel book doesn’t have to be a trivial book. There are scores of grand authors whose works are entirely accessible and which come in inexpensive, portable, paperback editions: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor, Sherwood Anderson, Dorothy Parker, Isaac Babel, Albert Camus, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Georges Simenon, Kingsley Amis, John Cheever, J.D. Salinger, John Fante, Walker Percy, Raymond Chandler, J.M. Coetzee, Philip K. Dick, Ian McEwan, Alice Munro and Philip Roth to name just a few. Science fiction, fantasy, mystery, horror, crime and erotica aren’t literary stopgaps; there are masters of every genre, you just have make an effort to identify them. All but the most exacting poets can be read piecemeal. I’m reluctant to list non-fiction because I’m less familiar with it, but the confessions of E.B. White, William Styron and Joan Didion are surely more arresting than a shopaholic’s.

Not all good literature is ponderous. (And, certainly, not all ponderous literature is good.) Beach reading, however is a delusion, and even if it’s a self-inflicted, comforting delusion, if our intention is to expose ourselves with the greatest frequency to the greatest works of art, then beach reading is a detrimental delusion. Perhaps beach reading provides a necessary catharsis that I simply don’t require. My rigor might be stuffy or misplaced, but it’s sincere. This intervention has simply tried to demonstrate that there’s an alternative. It’s up to the reader to decide if that alternative is valid or worth the effort.

If you need me, I’ll be at my desk.

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~ by ohkrapp on July 22, 2008.

6 Responses to “Against Beach Reading”

  1. J.M. coetzee?????????? come now….. waiting for the barbarians?

  2. good idea. i’ve actually read that one. i’ll add it.

  3. Just to play the Devil’s Advocate reader, might I pose the question of why books should be held to such a higher standard from all other media? That is to say, in movies and music I’ve known you to stoop as low as low culture gets; I do the same (i.e. Lil’ Jon, Aqua, Abba, for movies one could say, well I remember someone raving about Tron recently). Why do books have to be the reserve of sublime high culture? Is it something of the sacred impulse, a replacement for our forebears’ worship of the Bible?

    Could one not argue that the act of getting pleasure out of a written text is a worthwhile, even edifying activity regardless of the status or even quality of the text? Reading, as compared to other media, requires a more sustained attention, calls more on the recipient’s capacity for abstraction, and establishes a more direct link with a cultural inheritence (reading must be learned, viewing much less so). By this argument, readers should be encouraged to follow their pleasure, not turned away as unqualified.

    That said, the last thing I read that could be called “popular” was in 2004 when I was reading a novelization of the Star Trek series where Jordie isn’t blind anymore and Data dies. At least, I think Data dies, but I never ended up finishing it because I left it on the subway in New York after a short (but tough!) Mexican guy threatened me and I was all shaken up. He threatened me by standing on my foot and then sitting down next to me and staring at me. When I dared to look up at him he pointed at my book and growled “Read!”. So there you go.

  4. i want to answer these i just can’t do it today. forthcoming, though..

    1. why should books be held to such a higher standard from all other media?

    2. Why do books have to be the reserve of sublime high culture? Is it something of the sacred impulse, a replacement for our forebears’ worship of the Bible?

    3. Could one not argue that the act of getting pleasure out of a written text is a worthwhile, even edifying activity regardless of the status or even quality of the text?

  5. Books should not be held at a higher standard than other media. What you choose to read, watch, or listen to should all be edifying to your intellect. Music, art, books, magazines, blogs, movies, why should you settle for mind-numbing material when you could be enriching your mind?

  6. […] Against Beach Reading […]

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