The most peak beach read moment of my life came in 1999. I sat third in line of chaise lounges—Nana, Mom, Me, My Sister–beside the larger cabana pool at the Lowcountry beach resort we’d been going to every summer since time immemorial. All four of us were sun drunk. Three of us were at least tipsy from cabana cocktails. Nana, Mom and my sister, glistening with Hawaiian Tropic, a trio of golden-tanned nereids in black swimsuits and designer sunglasses. I was lobster pink, slathered in 50+, and cowering under long sleeved shirts and towels like I was going out for a part in a skid row “Lawrence of Arabia” because genetics are cruel.
Nana wasn’t much of a reader. Her preferred tomes were, generally, pricing guides for antique Japanese porcelain and the Horchow catalog. That year, however, she’d packed a paperback copy of the Starr Report amidst her Breton tees and linen shorts. Nana was a vocal critic of the Clinton administration, a fact that surprised no one, given that her personal politics ran slightly to the right of Divine Right Monarchy. I supposed she thought the book would be a place to bolster her already outspoken arguments. All of us knew better than to ask. We had a sort of gentleman’s agreement with regards to politics on family vacations, the central conceit of which was 1) Don’t Bring it Up and 2) When Nana does—and she will– try to change the subject as quickly as possible.
In that moment by the pool, I was lost in a dream of Conquest-era Mexico, wading through a particularly muddy chapter of Terra Nostra, and I could tell Nana was on the verge of saying a thing. My sister had helpfully put on headphones and had blocked her face with her UNC summer reading. Mom, reading an epistolary novel about Empress Josephine, was unfortunately sitting next to Nana, so the most easily available when Nana finally sighed dramatically and tapped her Virginia Slim impatiently against the resort-branded ashtray.
She said Moms name about three times. Mom didn’t immediately respond. She might have been engrossed in her book, but Nana was persistent. When she knew she had Mom’s attention, she shoved the Starr Report toward Mom and tapped a fingernail against the page.
“Honey, would you mind telling me what this is?”
There was a long pause. I listened to the splashing of swimmers in the pool, the ice clinking at the bar, the wheels on a cater tray bound for some unknown beachside fete. Were the playing the Cardigans at the tiki bar? And yet the pause stretched, long enough for me to realize, with dawning horror that whatever text had stymied my then seventy-three-year-old grandmother was probably not a legal term.
“Anybody want another round?” I asked.
Nana waved me off, looked expectantly at my mother. Mom gave me a pleading look and told me to add the drinks to her tab.
As I walked away down the boardwalk toward the bar, I could hear Mom in a tone of voice I recognized, in the halting, careful words I remember, saying, “Well, mother, when and a woman love each other very, very much . . .”
And I made a mental note to order Mom a double.
Two things I like: Sitting on, in, or near enough to the sea that I can sense it. Reading books.
My inner pirate captain is a bit of a librarian. And my inner librarian is only ever a breath away from raising the sails and lighting out for ports unknown. Both know that nothing improves the reading of a novel like a salty breeze and sand on the toes, even if said salt and sand are sticky murder on a paperback. I suppose there are people that go to the beach without a book. Those people are perverse. What do they do instead, exactly? I mean, how much bocce can a human play?
This time of year people come to me asking for beach books because I read more than is probably healthy. I think I do okay with recommendations. The better I know you, the closer I’ll get to the mark. But critical to the whole endeavor is what you mean by Beach Book. Some people define “beach book” as a slightly better class of airport book—something breezy, either plot-heavy, funny or both, not too serious, not too academic. Some people see the Beach Book as literal a beach book—a book set on or near a beach.  Sometimes those two categories overlap and that’s awesome, but you have to be very, very careful there or you summon Nicholas Sparks, the literary equivalent of the dude that brings a Filet -O-Fish to a Lowcountry Boil.
For today, I’m mostly going with the second category. Books about beaches, sea, sand, and coastal destination that I believe would be good to read whilst sitting on the beach of your choosing. I’ll try to go broad as possible here.Also, not every Beach Book will be strictly defined as “beach book,” so if that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for, Tana French’s The Witch Elm will be out in paperback in the US on July 30 (and it’s great).
Let’s start close to home. Many of us end up at the beach on family vacations, always awkward, which Colson Whitehead’s sly, autobiographical Sag Harbor pretty much nails. Questions of love and class sometimes arise especially if there’s marriage on the horizon as is the case in Dorothy West’s The Wedding. In Jill McCorkle’s Ferris Beach, friendships (and friendships with possibility) blossom around the various impediments of small town prejudice and adolescence.
Coastal living offers full-time residents unusual career paths in resorts, theme parks and tourist traps, like the alligator wrestling park in Southwest Florida that provides the setting for Karen Russell’s Bigtree dynasty to work out their differences in Swamplandia or the eponymous, possibly haunted North Carolina theme park of Stephen King’s slim Joyland. Resort hotels, as well, occupy the seaside, sometimes, as is the case with JG Farrell’s extraordinary Troubles offering a darkly humorous critique on colonialism, in its zany, cat-infested, slightly Gothic walls. And if you’d prefer imagining your mysterious terrorist with 80s hair, there’s also High Dive.
Of course, there may be more violence going on in popular vacation spots than meets the eye, if, say, you got to know some of the locals in Jamaica in Marlon James’ epic A Brief History of Seven Killings or the brave women of Trujillo’s Dominican Republic in Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies. But remember you’re a tourist, which means you need to avoid doing basically anything that a Paul Bowles protagonist would in the presence of sand. And try not too involved in local politics, lest you end up like one of the jaded bureaucrats in either of Bob Shachochis dense, dark meditations on international conflict set in hot places Swimming Into the Volcano or The Woman Who Lost Her Soul. Those both follow in the footsteps of Graham Greene, whose Our Man in Havana, is sort of ground-zero for this kind of thing. Also, it’s worth mentioning that much of Joan Didion’s (in my opinion) chronically overlooked fiction, specifically in The Last Thing He Wanted and Democracy falls into this zone, with a refreshingly female persective. (I love a literary spy novel, guys). Robert Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise considers these scenarios from a slightly less scrupulous perspective, if you’re curious what the pirates are up to these days.
Speaking of, lord isn’t Richard Hughes’ deft, surprising (based on a true story!) High Wind in Jamaica, with its pint-sized pirate ship mutineers just about the best thing ever? Kids are insane and can go very, very dark, just ask the beleaguered schoolteacher at the heart of suburban, post climate-crisis, dystopian Florida in Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. Things tend to get weird in Florida, as in Lauren Groff’s marvelous short story collection, Florida, and really, really weird in Jeff VanDerMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy.
Since antiquity, we’ve always known the sea is home to monsters. Sometimes literary monsters have their own unique perspective on events, such as in Madeline Miller’s wonderful, magical Circe. Men—Hemingway, Melville— famously love to go after them, even if they do meet bitter ends. Sometimes, as is the case in Michael Crummey’s Galore, they even unexpectedly come back. It’s sometimes true that those who spend their lives conjuring monsters may themselves have some monstrous ideas. Certainly that was the case with HP Lovecraft, and Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean is a great novel that tries to make sense of some of that. On the other hand, sometimes monsters end up being something quite unexpected, as in Sarah Perry’s gorgeous historical novel about science, faith and love, The Essex Serpent. Rarely do they end up being a wholly and completely hilarious as they do in Mat Johnson’s Pym
Of course, it’s never the destination when it comes to sea voyages, as much as the journey, whether it’s a thrilling evocation of friendship as in Patrick O’ Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, the horrors of the slave trade in Charles R. Johnson’s Middle Passage, or some combination of the two in Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger.
Seaside journeys also offer people an opportunity to meditate on their various troubles, sometimes philosophically, as is the case in all of Rachel Cusk’s Faye Trilogy, or John Banville’s grieving narrator in The Sea, or basically the whole of Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Dealing with romantic disappointment might provoke an escape the seaside, even if it happens that your ex is already there, as is the case in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea. But escaping the real world, in general, has long had its appeals, whether you’re following a passion for surfing, as in William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, or drug-fueled late 1960s conspiracy theory in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice.
It’s also possible you might be forced escape the seaside yourself. There’s usually a price to that. Just ask the Little Mermaid, or better Antoinette in Jean Rhys’ dreamy Jane Eyre “prequel” Wide Sargasso Sea. You might have to abandon a best friend, as in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels or get out before the law catches up with you if you’re Tom Ripley.
Finally, if you’re the sort of person that demands a dense history to while away your days with your toes in the sand, might I recommend David Abulafia’s The Great Sea, a survey of the Mediterranean from antiquity to present. It’s well-written, informative and a wider lens view of one of the world’s most fascinating places than your fourth reread of Tender is the Night or that copy of Beautiful Ruins your friend from book club loaned you, though, indeed, both of those are peak beach reads.
Don’t forget your sunscreen.
Happy reading. I’ll come back with more next year, if I’m
not eaten by a whale.
 Sometimes people even want to know, specifically, what I read/will be reading at the beach. That’s a gamble, because it’s basically just my To Read stack and there be monsters. Case in point: I spent the vast majority of a week at the beach some years back with Britain in Revolution, Austin Woolrych’s comprehensive doorstopper sized history of the English Civil War. The book was excellent, and I was engrossed, though this sort of thing is almost certainly not for everybody, as mother will attest, having endured a mini-lecture about the Long Parliament at the cabana bar after she innocently asked, “What is your book about?”
 But we’re not going to talk about Nicholas Sparks today, but if that’s the kind of thing you’re into, at least go up one flight and try Pat Conroy instead. Both your mom and Barbra Streisand will back me up on this. And if you are in a beach rental anywhere south of Cape Cod or north of Miami, there is a near 100% chance that there’s already a copy of The Prince of Tides on the shelf with the Reader’s Digest Condensed and the Scrabble set missing all the Ws. Some of the characters and attitudes haven’t aged particularly well but it’s pretty entertaining, if for no other reason than almost everything that can happen in a book (so, Trigger Warning?) does happen at some point in The Prince of Tides.