The Invention of the “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.
What We’re Reading This Summer
New Yorker writers on the new and notable books they can’t put down.
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“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.
To accommodate them, the publishing industry got to work shaping a correspondingly alluring discourse around summer reading. Some Victorians were concerned about the vulgar seductions of fiction, especially the sensational stories that multiplied as production costs declined. But the book industry seized the chance to rebrand summer novels as “an acceptable middle-class pleasure,” Harrington-Lueker writes. Such P.R. craft failed to convince everyone. (“I really believe,” the Reverend T. De Witt Talmage wrote, in 1876, “that there is more pestiferous trash read among the intelligent classes in July and August than in all the other ten months of the year.”) But it was convincing enough. Trade publications compiled lists of the best books for summer; publishing houses developed vacation reading series and flogged “summer” editions of popular backlist titles. Literature itself began to reflect, with an appealing self-consciousness, the image of the genteel reader escaping into her paperback. (The characters in summer novels are endlessly paging through summer novels. In “Surf: A Summer Pilgrimage,” by Saul Wright and F. T. Wilson, the female love interest loses several hours to Julia Constance Fletcher’s “Mirage,” another popular tale of travel and romance.) Reading had long been aspirational as a tool of intellectual betterment; now it also suggested the rituals of a moneyed élite. The author Henry James cast summer reading as a sensual feminine performance. “There are few prettier sights than a charmingly dressed woman, gracefully established in some shady spot, with a piece of needlework or embroidery, or a book,” he wrote.
Consider a Life magazine cover from July 26, 1883: the centerpiece, with the label “the prettiest thing in hammocks,” reveals “a young girl languidly absorbed in a novel titled ‘A Burglar’s Love,’ alone, rapt, and with a bag of candy at her side—an innocent consumer of both words and sweets,” Harrington-Lueker writes. These images were flooding the high-minded periodicals of the day in part because prominent members of the literary and publishing worlds were themselves embracing the idea of vacation, from James T. Fields, the editor of The Atlantic, to Horace Scudder, the editor-in-chief at Houghton Mifflin, to Louisa May Alcott. Time off was the flip side of the punishing Victorian work ethic, an earthly reward for laborious sacrifice. (As William Dean Howells, then an assistant editor at The Atlantic, wrote to a friend, “We are going to Brattleboro next week … and I have, of course, had to fight my way to this possibility through myriads of infuriate manuscripts.”)
In 1888, Arlo Bates, who was then the editor of the Boston Sunday Courier, set down a slim treatise called “Summer Novels.” Bates, a novelist himself, observed that as temperatures rose, young ladies begin to think on “new gowns and pleasing fictions, both airy and froth-like.” He wrote that “a perfect foam of light novels rises when the flowers begin to be in blossom, and these hold pretty general sway until the frosts break up summer parties and close the seaside and mountain hotels.” But Bates’s whimsical account then turned critical; the books are produced to be chatted about, he objected, rather than read, and they traffic in “conventional sentiment.” Bates’s essay, which previewed contemporary debates around summer reading, is an object lesson in how easily literary “foam”—as wispy and inconsequential, perhaps, as the women who read it—can elicit not only amusement but scorn.
“Books for Idle Hours” is especially interesting on the emergence of a new type of textual diversion: the American summer novel. It unfolds in a resort setting. Its episodic, plot-driven structure makes it easy to put down and resume again amid festive interruptions—the barbecue, the lake trip. The American summer novel spotlights unmarried youngsters, especially solo women; it croons of courtship and love. Examples include “Their Wedding Journey” and “The Landlord at Lion’s Head,” by William Dean Howells; “The Flirtations of a Beauty; or, a Summer’s Romance at Newport,” by Laura Jean Libbey (whose heroine is kidnapped by pirates); and “One Summer,” by the poet Blanche Willis Howard. As Harrington-Lueker notes, many of these stories possess a madcap energy, an aura of contained transgression. By the dénouement, which usually deposits the characters safely in September or October, societal rules have reasserted themselves, with the male lead restored, by his time off, to health and productivity, and the heroine ensconced in honest wedlock. The tales are sneakily self-referential, full of elegant types who indulge in light summer reading. They test society’s edges, even subtly critique the more vapid ceremonies of élite fun. But, like a Shakespearean comedy or a rowdy game of croquet on the resort lawn, the books fence in their own lunacy and uphold convention at their core. “By schooling readers in the performance of the new leisure—what to see, what to wear, what to do,” Harrington-Lueker suggests, summer novels “played a significant role in shaping that middle class identity.”
“Books for Idle Hours” pays attention to outliers and exceptions. It discusses the Chautauqua movement, an educational program that saw no contradiction between summer and sinking deep into difficult texts. It notes that wealthy African-American families also availed themselves of the new summer leisure—popular destinations included Saratoga Springs and Harper’s Ferry—but that the mainstream summer narrative relegated most black characters to service or working-class positions. And it takes these books—and the culture that shaped them, and the culture they shaped—seriously, even while acknowledging how transitory they were: few of the nineteenth-century resort fictions are known to us today. The adjectives that loop around these titles are often simply descriptors of summer-ness: airy, buoyant, salty, sunny, breezy. The books were not great literature, in the traditional sense. We measure a novel’s value by its staying power, its permanence. But there is a value, too, in language that dissolves like an afternoon in July, the last rays guttering in the branches as you close your book and go inside.