“Adorable, hilarious, witty, sweet, quirky, interesting, readable, romantic, easy, captivating, fun, heartbreaking, clever, lovely, charming.”
~ Words used by Buzzfeed to describe books in their “beach reads” list
“Exhilarating, riveting, exquisite, provocative, masterful, touching, smart, nuanced, intricate, surprising, fluid, thrilling, multi-layer, intense, complex.”
~ Words used by the BBC to describe books in their “beach reads” list
When you toss a towel in a tote bag, smooth (or, in my case, slather) on the sunscreen, and pillage the pantry for snacks, what book do you grab for your day at the beach? Something you’ve read before? Something assigned to you? The latest bestseller? The classic you’ve been meaning to embark on?
What, exactly, makes something a “beach read”? I’ve been thinking about this topic as I browse bookstores and libraries this summer, noting the endcap displays and advertised shelves of “beach” or “summer” books. Interesting, isn’t it, that there’s no Library of Congress designation for these books. It’s not an official genre. Yet, we could all probably list the things that make something a stereotypical beach read.
These books tend to be easy and engaging. They’re not about heavy topics, and they don’t make us think too hard or reread every other sentence. They can be mysteries that keep us guessing or slowly-unfolding romances. They have striking covers that stick out on bookstore shelves and racks at the airport.
Oh, and they’re mostly for women.
And you’re probably embarrassed to read them.
When we talk about beach reads—or, by extension, chick flicks or gossip magazines or candy pop music—we’re actually talking about pretension. We’re drawing the line in the sand between high-brow and low-brow, between capital-A Art and simple entertainment.
I’d wager that most of us writing for the post calvin have been taught to at least appreciate what most of the country sees as high-brow “culture.” We discern things and think deeply about what makes something Art. We (pretend) to know about coffee and beer and we stay away from chain restaurants. We wouldn’t feel uncomfortable at a symphony concert.
But, we’re also human. We love to be entertained. Low-brow things are low-brow generally because of the sheer number of people who like them. They’re not exclusive. But because we’ve been raised and trained in the high-brow world, we have to make excuses. We’re prone to saying things like, “I know it’s not Literature, but I really liked Gone Girl.” We belt out the chorus of “Shake It Off” and remark, “She’s not a great artist and I object to her morally as a role model, but that song is just so catchy.” We watch “bad” movies, but we watch them ironically.
But don’t you ever get tired of the excuses? I’ll be the first to admit that I participate in high-brow culture. I read The New Yorker. I like independent films. I watch documentaries. I read books that win the Pulitzer or the National Book Award. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like the occasional fashion magazine or that I haven’t seen a Nicholas Sparks movie or that I thoroughly enjoyed Twilight. Those things are popular because they’re so universally appealing, right? I’m tired of making excuses.
I’m sure this whole argument has been made before. In fact, Calvin even taught us to discern and redeem everything—low- and high-brow. It’s nothing new to hear a Millennial say, “I just like what I like!” or “I’m tired of everything being consumed ironically!”
But here’s maybe something new: I think beach reads should be disbanded as a genre. Take whatever book or magazine or podcast or album or audio recording or Frisbee or volleyball you want to the beach. So far this summer, I’ve read Meg Wolizter’s The Interestings, Phil Klay’s Redeployment, (part of, the thing’s 800 pages) George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Bon Appetite magazine on the beach. Sure, some looked more impressive than others, but is that really why we read? I enjoyed them all, and that’s what really matters.
Abby Zwart (’13) teaches high school English in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spends her free time making lists of books she should read, cooking, and managing the post calvin.