Temperatures are starting to heat up and I’m enjoying the sun, but also crossing my fingers for a slightly cooler summer than last year. Travel restrictions have eased up and many folks are escaping on those getaways they have been putting off for the past couple summers.
We are fortunate here to be so close to the coast, making quick beach trips an easy getaway. With all the heaviness of daily life, we all need a little escape from time to time. With this in mind, I went on a quest to learn more about so-called “beach reads” that are popular this time of year and make for great escapist reading.
What exactly is a beach read? It seems there is no consensus in the publishing world. A quick search for “what is a beach read” and I found that people describe them in a plethora of different ways: carefree, lighthearted romance, “summery” settings, brisk pace, low stakes, simple diction, shouldn’t have weighty themes or social significance, enjoyable and easy, elements of fantasy, escapist, episodic, plot-driven structure, and many more.
Some people say the best are romance novels, others insist fast-paced thrillers and mysteries are their preferred beach reading. The most common attributes I’ve found to describe a “beach read” is that it shouldn’t make the reader feel that they’re doing intellectual work and is compulsively readable.
The concept of a book specifically for reading in the summer or on vacation began around the end of the 19th century when residents of growing urbanized areas were escaping the dingy industrial centers in the summertime. Marketers saw this wave and saw the opportunity to target books specifically to people flocking to the bucolic countryside or breezy seaside and embracing leisure time. Workers in cities had more income to spend on vacations. Newspapers and magazines began running articles about camping, resorts, mineral springs and the outdoors.
The actual term “beach read” is much more recent than that. Its first use can be traced to summer 1990 when it was mostly used by trade publications like Booklist and Publisher’s Weekly. It gradually worked its way into mainstream vernacular in the 1990s and now is a staple in the book realm.
This designation of “beach read” is also a great example of the habit of “mood reading” in general. Some people are mood readers and I count myself as one of these people. If I’m feeling anxious about a particular topic I like to read things that help alleviate this anxiety or provide catharsis. I also like to match my reading material to my environment or season.
When we went to Kauai recently, I craved a book that took place in a tropical island setting to read while surrounded by palm trees on the beach. We like to see our experiences mirrored in our literature; we need to see ourselves represented in books and other media in addition to stories that help open windows into other peoples experiences.
Mood readers also often may have a “to be read” (TBR) list that’s a mile long and have a hard time reading things if we’re just not in the mood for them. This is an appropriate time to bring this up because it’s a great time to reassess reading goals made in the headiness of New Year Resolution time.
It’s easy to get discouraged at the list of goals — reading or otherwise, if we haven’t accomplished what we had thought we’d get done by this time of the year. Reading can often fall by the wayside in service of more “practical” activities for me, and sometimes I’m just simply not in the mood for the title I’ve decided I should read at the moment. But it’s summertime and a great time to remember that I also find it endlessly interesting to think about why certain genres go through waves of popularity.
What does it say about us when we crave reading about vampires, zombies or dystopian futures? Or, is it all a product of effective marketing? Whatever the reason, we like to read what we read. I hope you are able to find something that gives you comfort or inspiration this summer!
(Julia Engel is a reference librarian for the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library technical services division. She can be reached via email at Julia.Engel@corvallisoregon.gov or by phone at 541-766-6988.)