What the Hell is a “Beach Read”?

As this heatwave flings itself in the usually chilly Northern California, it can fool us into thinking of getting another beach read, more time under the sun, a momentarily lapse of fog-blanketed rooftops in September.

I’ve never really understood the concept “beach reads” to begin with, but I do know it’s a huge market. Maybe it’s the thought that you can’t really do anything else when you’re laying in the sand, with the ocean’s waves at the tip of your toes other than engage with a book that cinches it, but I have some qualms.

To be honest, I’ve found the idea quite weird. What is a beach read anyway? I came across this wonderful think piece from The Guardian awhile ago:

…the essence of the beach read, most could agree, was more of a mood than anything else: attached to vacation, the book shouldn’t have any really weighty themes or social significance. It should be enjoyable and easy, with brisk pace and simple diction. An element of fantasy – either of the Straubian-gentrified Brooklyn type, the super-macho-spy-novel type, or the unicorns-and-feudal-lords type – is generally involved.

Above all, the reader shouldn’t feel they’re doing intellectual work. It’s all right if the beach read is a tearjerker, a bone-chiller or an adrenaline pumper: what it must never, ever be is something that gets the old neurons firing.

Oh my god, for reiteration: “…the reader shouldn’t feel they’re doing intellectual work.” 

Some of the things that this piece pointed out worth noting is that the term is also gendered, as more “chick lit” is labeled as a beach read. I kind of see the point of reading as a sinful indulgence back in the days, thus being at the beach correlates to a kind of hedonism but other than that single point, I find the idea ludicrous.

I took Juan Severo Miguel’s Habang Wala Pa Sila with me when I went to Culebra in Puerto Rico, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees when I was in Boracay and in Palawan in the Philippines and just recently, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies while in Tulum in México. I don’t know if books on Filipino poetry, refugees and queer Irishmen surviving their times can hardly count as “enjoyable and easy” reading.

Books for me are for exploring other worlds, other people’s stories and other lives, for discovering truths that bring us closer to ourselves, for expanding our realms of un/familiarity, for teaching us that we know nothing in this world, in the gentlest of ways.

Reading requires a certain internal capacity of openness and understanding, a willingness to have your beliefs challenged.

I can’t possibly imagine doing that at the beach, when the mere fact of one’s physical presence by the water is already a lot on the senses. To drink up the blue of the ocean, the expanse of the sky, the brine in the air and the sound of waves crashing is enough to make you feel the most alive. How can you make room for anything else?

If this is one reason why beach reads should not feel like the reader is doing any intellectual work, then you’ve got reading all wrong. I’d rather point to the industry that has marketed this strategy, because it does injustice to both pursuits. If anything, time at the beach should make us feel more connected to the world around us, an experience that reading also leaves us with.

So next time you go to the beach, think twice. Stay present to what’s in front of you, whether it’s saltwater or a world imprinted on a page.



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