Beach Reads: Lazy Days Call for Big Books
June 20 2015

Summertime, and the reading is easy. Isn’t that the way we are supposed to approach this season of the Beach Read? In fact, isn’t “beach read” now a euphemism for “brainless, yet absorbing,” a perfect book for all kinds of scenarios in which thinking is too taxing, but the mind seeks amusement. What one reads, for example, while getting your oil changed, or while waiting at the vet for the cat’s nails to be clipped. Oh, man, I get it. Life is just too overpoweringly over-stimulating. Learning to use Bitmoji recently exhausted me to the point of paralysis. Beaches, pools, lakes and streams call for calm and the kind of book that allows one to lift the eyes up, gaze into the blue (or green), or close against the sun, and when they return to the page, one’s place is easily found, the story easily re-entered. It’s the reading equivalent of wearing terrycloth.

I have no quibble with this kind of reading. I just don’t do it, and here’s why. If I have the time to sit for hours without interruption, be it on a plane or on the sand, it means I have time to concentrate, and most important of all, to lose myself. It means, at last I can take on a Big Book. 

Here’s my logic: the stereotypical classic beach read, let’s say The Thorn Birds, or perhaps Bridget Jones’s Diary, and a raft of mysteries, thrillers, and romances, are books one can race through, with plots and characters one can incorporate into a matrix of screaming kids, demanding bosses, and planning one, or six, baby showers. These are the very books to read from Labor Day toMemorial Day. Once the warm weather hits, it’s time for Chekhov, for Flaubert, for George Eliot, for Dostoyevsky.

Stay with me on this. In summer you aren’t checking email as often. The office has promised to leave you alone. Early Fridays (way better than Casual Fridays) means you get an entire weekend to read, instead of two jittery hours on Sunday before the painful “tick tick tick” of the Sixty Minutes clock tells you, “Times up.” With more mental space think of the swan dive one can take into Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, or better yet, The House of Mirth. Actually, for my money, the under-praised star of the Wharton school of New York novels about social scheming is The Custom of the Country. You think The Real Housewives are selfish? Check out Undine Spragg. Her name says it all, and screams, “My heart is harder than your granite countertops.” 

Perhaps not surprisingly, as a Southern California teen I took with me to the dunes of Corona del Mar and Newport Beach the biggest, weightiest books I could find. Beside them, I looked like a fifteen year-old Kate Moss. Along with the Coppertone and Cheetos I packed James Joyce’s Ulysses, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and some endless tale of Viking exploration nearly a thousand pages long. Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education once kept me occupied during a three-day hang at the Delaware shore, interrupted only by sausage calzones. But size wasn’t always the sole consideration. Weirdness counts. In college, I took D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel with me to a family Christmas in Palm Springs, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five to the Grand Canyon. 

It’s always been like this, so maybe I haven’t given Jennifer Weiner a fair shake. One day in girlhood, as baked on the patio like a Cornish hen in cocoa butter and read Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, my mother stuck her head out of a window and snapped, “Why can’t you read Belva Plain like a normal person?” Why? Because, because (sigh), these books take time, patience, reflection, and to me, are worth the expense of that time. Big books are not just long, they are also complex, experimental, play with language and ideas, spin out extended narratives, and as an autodidact, I want to wander through them on my own, guided only by my own bizarre, totally unsocial curiosity. And I don’t want to talk about these books. I protect myself against social shunning by not expecting anyone else to be interested in, say, how incredibly stupid Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau is, or how funny Moby-Dick can be. Besides, my parents forget that I found my personal literary nerdfest on their bookshelves. 

It is in big, serious, difficult books read under conditions that put no further stress on me, that I can really get away. These are the journeys I undertook during the years when I felt trapped in the suburbs with only quarters for the bus as a means of escape, and these books still carry me where I most want to go. 

So, what am I reading this summer? Mark Danielewski’s 800-page novel, The Familiar, Vol. 1: One Rainy Day in May, the first of a planned 27 volumes. Take that Marcel Proust! The Familiar has been compared to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, and every chapter uses a different font. On some pages the text is in the shape of an orb, and in places it lapses into the Cyrillic alphabet, or is surrounded by acres of white space. There are Rubik’s cubes, and…math. But that’s not why I am eager to get to it. I know it will be challenging, but even that isn’t the prime draw. It’s the repetition of the line, “How many raindrops?” scattered across the page, in a spring shower of words. I have to know what it’s all about, or at least see the spectacle for myself. I want to find out whether this seemingly unknowable book can be known. I guess it’s a metaphor for the process of examining life. Can we know it, or will meaning forever elude us? The idea is that what was once mystery becomes familiar. (Even The Familiar.) The limitless becomes manageable, or at least we begin to understand just how limitless existence is. And in the end, the real trip is into that most exotic and fascinating of lands, your own mind. 

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