This blog entry is dedicated to the Zigar family, who graciously hosted us and our friends throughout the weekend and generously offered me the use of their refrigerator.
Picture by Mimi McCallum. Click to check out more of McCallum's warm and evocative artwork.
I spent the weekend in cottage country – Ipperwash Beach, to be exact – and, predictably, when I wasn’t floating on Lake Huron or toasting marshmallows and singing “Sweet Caroline”, I was sprawled out on a beach blanket reading. I wasn’t the only one. As many librarians know, the reading public is drawn to the concept of the beach read: the fun, fluffy fiction that melds reading and relaxing when you’re taking your summer vacation. (Check out some fairly typical recommendations here and here, or hit Google with the search term “beach reads”.)
When you think about a beach read, you’re usually not thinking about a particularly heavy story; hot summer days don’t need bulky clothes, big meals, or dragging stories to weigh them down. They’re usually short paperbacks, easy to rest in your lap or hold up as a shield from the sun. (My selection this weekend was an exception: Stephen King’s Under the Dome weighs about as much as my cat, and doctors have recommended that I avoid lifting it. My cottage-country companions nicknamed it “Under the Tome”.) Beach reads aren’t usually the kind of stories you want to overthink – never mind deeper meanings or profound life lessons. Nobody wants to overheat their brain any more than necessary under the hot July sun.
Or do they?
The hot trend at Ipperwash Beach this summer seems to be all about expanding your cranium. When it comes to fiction, the classics are back in fashion. Instead of the latest crime thrillers and bodice-rippers, I caught my companions stretched out in lawn chairs with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. It’s rare to think of non-fiction as material for beach reads, but even that was drifting around. I caught friends toting paperbacks about Kantian metaphysics (really!) and perusing the latest issue of Scientific American, with stories on brain research and climate change.
I’ve got nothing against fun, fluffy fiction. Snobbery has no place in librarianship, or in life; you could miss out on great life lessons by assuming there’s nothing you can possibly learn from a James Patterson or Nora Roberts . . . or, for that matter, an episode of The Bachelor. Or maybe there is no great life lesson in store, but it’s just fun to read. That’s okay too. As long as it piques your interest, there’s really no such thing as a bad choice when it comes to reading material.
But if libraries stick to promoting the more traditional beach reads, they’re missing an opportunity to capture the imagination. A beach escape can be a great place for escapist fiction, but it can also be the perfect place to dive into thought-provoking, reflective reading. Recalling the fresh breezes, soft sands, and soothing wave-sounds of Ipperwash, I find it hard to imagine a more perfect place to pick up a book that will get your mind going in all kinds of new and intriguing directions. The beach is a great place to get wrapped up in the classic literature you’ve been dying to peruse, or to learn more about some subject that’s piqued your interest, or to search for some conclusion on a controversial topic you’d like to understand. And if, like many of the people I saw this weekend, you like to alternate your reading with cookouts, campfires, boat rides, and water games, it gets even better. The breaks between reading sessions can help your mind digest and reflect on the material you’ve read and possibly make interesting connections that just wouldn’t surface in the fast-paced environment of the workaday world.
If you love your beach reads as they are, more power to you. It’s your vacation, after all: read what you want to.
But if you’re a reader (or a librarian) who feels stuck in a beach-reading rut, maybe it’s time to stop overlooking the more daunting reads that will get your neurons fired up. Don’t be afraid of paragraphs that might take a bit of re-reading or things you’ll want to pause and reflect upon as you read. Where better to reflect than on the water? Or while you’re looking up at a summer-home sky full of stars you’d never see in the big city?
You might find yourself thinking thoughts you honestly never expected, fired up in a whole new way, and more mentally rejuvenated than you thought your summer vacation could ever get you.