October 13, 2019

What Qualifies as a Beach Read?

“Summer reading—so much expectation and anxiety and judgment is compressed within those two words! June hardly has a chance to throw on a bikini and step onto the deck before morning shows, magazines, and Web sites descend with their “Beach Reads” and “Summer Reading Lists” and “Summer Fiction Top Tens.” Bookstores set up displays with the latest hot paperbacks, their colors so saturated that they pulse under your eyelids like sun spots. When I open my e-mail in-box, the atmosphere is manic with anticipated literary delight—subject lines blaring “the perfect summer read” and “SUMMER THRILLER” and “best books for the beach!”

And yet there’s no cultural consensus on whether summer reading is “a thing.” “The term is so ubiquitous that its definitions are a point of contention,” Michelle Dean wrote in the Guardian, in 2016. Authors do not necessarily love the category. For every writer who embraces the term, Allison Duncan wrote, in Vulture, “there’s another who is wary of a genre considered superficial, often in highly gendered terms.” Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the author of the novel “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” recently expressed puzzlement on Twitter that her book was being described as a “beach read.” “I am confused as to why our taste for what we like would change in the location we read it, or the season,” she wrote.

“Books for Idle Hours,” a new history by the academic Donna Harrington-Lueker, unpacks both the constructedness of “summer reading” and its gravitational pull. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, urbanization and industrialization gave summertime a new radiance—it offered a chance to escape the sweaty, overcrowded city and reconnect with nature. The steamship and the railroad made vacation getaways more accessible. Periodicals and newspapers began running features on resort towns and advertised summer activities and goods: cruises, camping gear, mineral springs. In the pages of Harper’s, the artist Winslow Homer published chic illustrations of fashionable, sun-dazed women watching horse races or strolling along the ocean. In short, bolstered by the era’s print culture, a new market of pleasure-seeking Americans emerged.”

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