By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

As the weather warms, and the sun becomes radiant, I know what is coming: ‘Beach reads’.  NPR will do a story about the best ‘beach reads’; Facebook friends will share lists of  the ‘hottest summer reads’;  bookstores will John Lavery (Irish Painter, 1856-1941) Girl in a Red Dress Reading by a Swimming Pooldisplay the most scorching books of the summer.  Well, I am here today to proclaim ‘ENOUGH’!  I have had it with the ‘beach read’ status quo. We need a literary revolution.

Let me be clear, I have nothing against bringing books to the beach.  I myself have a book with me at all times. When I go to the pool, I bring a book.  When I go to the playground with my kids, I bring a book.  And yes, when I go to the beach, I bring a book.  So, it is not the idea of ‘beach reads’ that irks me.  What annoys me is the notion that ‘beach reads’ must be mind-numbing, poorly written pap. ‘Beach reads’ have become the reality television of the literary world.

I ask myself, why do Americans willingly waste hours and hours of relaxation reading books that are turned out by authors who are formulaic and, as most will admit, absolutely forgettable? I realize the answer that most give to this question: ‘Beach reads’ should be entertaining and should allow the reader to ‘lose himself’.  I understand, I really do.  But, this points to the central kernel of why a revolution is necessary.  Though publishing houses, bookstores, and our mass media disagree, entertainment is not the antithesis of quality.  Unlike the deadening ephemeral nature of today’s ‘beach reads’, great literature lives and breathes beyond the three months of summer because it is so entertaining. Don’t believe me? Pick up Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby this month, and feel the life pulsating through the pages. Grab Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in July, and discover the definition of a ‘page turner.’  In August, just try to put down Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.

As with all revolutions, this one has a utopian undercurrent. I hope this summer, millions of Americans will be laying on the beach, lost in Phillip Roth, or Richard Wright, or Yukio Mishima, or Toni Morrison and gain insights into humanity.  What better time to be meditative on the human condition then when you are lying under the scalding sun, breathing in the scents of summer?  Perhaps Franz Kafka can be our revolutionary forebear? Over a century ago, Kafka wrote to a friend that:images (12)

Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy…? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.”

Okay, maybe Kafka goes a little far, but the basis of his idea is correct.  Books should stay with us after we close the cover.  The ‘beach reads’ of today are the opposite of this ideal.  They are particularly marketed as the art of the forgettable.  Like so much else in our society, ‘beach reads’ are intended to be disposable.  So, I say, let’s dispose of them!  Bury your latest Faye Kellerman in the sand!  Toss your Richard North Patterson into the waves!  It is time for a revolution, and this revolution will not be reality-televised!

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Comments
  1. Emily says:

    Personally, I love the idea of some Kafka in the sand…couldn’t agree with you more!

  2. docanon says:

    But how about Kafka On The Shore? Does that count?

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