Texts on the Beach

What Makes a Classic Summer Read? Depends on Whom You Ask.

(Illustration by Julia Breckenreid -- For The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 22, 2008; Page N01

Summer is a season that demands a certain kind of book. It's a time for beach reads, they say, not for "Finnegans Wake" or "Gravity's Rainbow." You don't have to work the book. The book works you.

But what does the term "beach read" mean, beyond bonanza sales? Is a beach read a whimsical Maeve Binchy? Is it a legal potboiler by John Grisham or a sprawling saga by James Michener? Or all of the above and more? (Or less?)

We dialed up some best-selling novelists to ask.

"It's a page turner," says David Baldacci, an author of political thrillers who lives in Fairfax. "Fast plots. Engaging characters. Twists and turns. You don't have to think a whole lot about serious things."

"It's an indulgence," says mystery writer Janet Evanovich, whose recurring heroine is a bounty hunter named Stephanie Plum. "It's usually a well-crafted book written by an author that consistently delivers. Something you can count on."

"It's sort of paradoxical," says Diana Gabaldon, author of the sci-fi, romantic and historical fiction Outlander series. "A great beach read has to have two attributes: really absorbing so you want to read it, but it also has to be interruptible so you can put it down and chase your kids."

Publishers are rolling out marquee summer titles this month, with the season's sales expected to peak in August. The beach read's popularity stems from the advent of the mass-market paperback industry, which began in 1945 when publisher Ian Ballantine started Bantam Books. Paperbacks were cheap (25 cents in the late 1940s) and fit snugly in pockets or purses -- easy to buy, easy to transport and, generally, easy to read. In the '50s, books became available in drugstores, supermarkets and train terminals. Publishers started lucrative TV and movie tie-ins, with paperbacks being released with their film adaptations.

If the '70s gave birth to the summer movie blockbuster, the '60s were about blockbuster books. "Valley of the Dolls" (1966), "Rosemary's Baby" (1967) and "The Godfather" (1969) flew off the shelves as books before they sold out theaters as movies.

"'The Godfather' was the first of the superbooks t hat totally dominated beach reads," says Albert Greco, a marketing professor at Fordham University who specializes in the publishing industry. "And then in the '70s you see the next round of superbooks: 'Jaws,' 'Roots.' Then in the '80s, you see 'Bourne Identity,' 'Princess Daisy' [by Judith Krantz], Danielle Steel. In the '90s, we start to see a slight shift: The emergence not of the big superstar book, but the big superstar author."

These superstars hit the top-10 lists year after year: Patricia Cornwell, Grisham, James Patterson, J.K. Rowling. They are brands unto themselves, and their devoted followings count on consistent delivery. Every June, for example, Evanovich releases her newest Stephanie Plum story in hardcover and last year's title in paperback.

"I love being thought of as a beach read," she says. "It makes it easy for the consumer because they know to look forward to this at the same time every year."

The popular perception might be that a beach read is somehow deficient compared with whatever's nabbing the Booker Prize. But some novelists dispute this, and writer and critic Thomas Mallon draws a distinction between a beach read and an "airplane read," or a thinly crafted book that seems designed simply to tranquilize flight anxiety.

"The beach would actually seem to me the perfect time to read something really serious, because your mind would be clear enough and untroubled enough to take it in," says Mallon, who lives in the District and whose novel "Fellow Travelers" was published last year. "The beach sounds perfect for that ambitious run at Proust or Gibbon."

She's not Proust, but if there's one person installed on the beach-read throne by both the publishing industry and the public, it's probably Mary Higgins Clark, the queen of suspense who has sold 80 million copies in the United States alone. She's in the airport stacks, the beach bags and the orderly shelves of rented townhouses on the seashore.

"I think it's defined as sort of light, entertaining reading, as opposed to having a heavier tone," says Clark, on the phone from her home in New Jersey. "You sit on the beach with a book by an author who has so far pleased you, and you know what to expect."

Does she see herself as a beach-read goddess?

"I'm called a good beach read," Clark hedges. "I hope I'm a decent read the other 10 months of the year."

To herald the start of beach-read season, we've asked some authors to tell us their favorites. We've also come up with our own list of eight reads from the past 100 years that still possess enough snap and crackle to complement any day in the sun.

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