It is prime reading season. From the time we were children, summer reading started with summer reading programs like Book It! and local library challenges, getting us excited about picking up books. Then as soon as we entered high school, it was the required reading list sent home by teachers, dampening the thrill. However, the pendulum swung back to reading for pleasure, and it evolved over time to be dog-eared mass market paperbacks crushed and slightly damp at the bottom of a beach bag.
About half of us read the most during the summer months. Regular readers who read a book a month or so for book club or as a hobby during the year seem to get through more books in the summer than any other season. Summer is often when people have more leisure time and brain space available.
Beach Read vs Summer Read
The connotation of beach read is different from summer read. A fellow Rioter has already covered what makes a beach read, so to sum up, it’s a book that can be read quickly and brings joy. Often the stakes are low. It’s a book that keeps you entertained — summer setting and romance optional, but encouraged.
Summer reading, on the other hand, can be defined in much broader terms. They are also books focused on entertaining the reader, but can include fiction that happens to be released in the summer, even if the themes are heavier than what is traditionally thought of as a beach read.
Marketing for summer reading has been around for decades. Although the term “beach read” wasn’t coined until the 1990s, reading at the beach has been taken advantage of by publishing marketers since the mid-1800s, when Boston’s Ticknor, Reed & Fields published A Book for the Sea-Side, a collection of ocean-themed poetry featuring Lord Alfred Tennyson, William Wordsworth, and others. At first, reading for entertainment was challenged by religious people of the day. Popular Brooklyn preacher Rev. T. DeWitt Talmage warned in an 1876 sermon that paperback romance novels were “literary poison” and “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.” There was immediate push back that claimed “light summer reading” as a genteel act, a perfectly acceptable middle class pastime, and a welcome escape from the pressures of 19th century life.
Once other publishers caught on to the trend, they realized it was a way to boost the previously lackluster season in publishing. Now, the market was flush with light summer reads, both physically and figuratively. Paperback novels became increasingly popular because they “have a cool and summery look, and from their flexibility may be readily stowed away in one’s pocket or thrust into an unfilled corner of a travelling bag.” They also adapted themselves “to every conceivable reading attitude, from bolt upright to the recumbent position assumed on a sofa or lounge, or in a steamer-chair, hammock or bed, or stretched out on a greensward or sandy beach.”
Donna Harrington-Lueker, author of Books for Idle Hours: Nineteenth-Century Publishing and the Rise of Summer Reading, writes that light reading pairs perfectly with a season of rest and rejuvenation that previously hadn’t been available to working class folks who could now afford time off and to travel for vacation.
Summer novels became easily recognizable by their paper covers and romanticized summer time scenes depicted, much like beach reads today. “A catching title, the colors, and a photographic reproduction of a comely soubrette face are considered the correct adornment of the cover of a Summer novel,” the Book Review reported in 1900. These novels were part story, part how-to guide to the resorts where they were set and the readers were staying.
Summer reading became an American past time regardless of if the reader was able to go on vacation or not. During World War I, when people put vacations on hold indefinitely, the summer reading didn’t stop. In 1915, one year into the war, The New York Times reported: “In curious and unexpected ways the war affects and alters many a thing, the latest of its byproducts is the appearance of manifold signs that there is to be a boom in summer reading. Not wholly in books about the war, either; in every kind of books.”
The introduction of mass market paperbacks in the 1930s to drugstores and newsstands kept summer reading available to the public. Being able to buy paperback books anywhere, rather than a designated bookstore or resort, at the spur of the moment, made it an ancestor to the ebook according to Leah Price, author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading.
Amazon’s introduction of the Kindle in 2007 increased the convenience and likelihood of impulse buying. It also eliminated outward facing book covers so that people who felt guilty about the kind of “light” books they were reading could enjoy beach reads anywhere.
Through the Years
It’s interesting to see what the most common cover on the beach is each year. There are write-ups on the most popular beach reads throughout the years, or as The New York Times calls them, “The ‘It Books’ of Summers Past.” The most common thread of these books is the unputdownableness of each title. Theme and style-wise, the list runs the gamut.
Let’s look at a selection from the last ten years. Emily Henry’s Beach Read swept the summer of 2020. The year before that it was Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. 2017 was The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. In 2015 it was Girl on the Train and Gone Girl in 2012. From romance to historical fiction to suspense and thriller. All of these books are fast reads. They are the kind of books that you still think about if you do have to pause to walk back to the beach house or mix yourself a drink. All of them give the reader an escape from their present reality to be swept up into fiction where the emotions are real but the risks are not.
All of them, also, are predominantly white. These lists should include books like Counterfeit by Kristen Chen, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, and The Sellout by Paul Beatty, to name a few. Their absence from these best seller lists could be blamed on a number of ‘legitimate’ factors. These books weren’t marketed the same way as the beach reads or the target audience isn’t as wide. Or, maybe, it’s because these books are all by authors of color, and systemic racism is real.
In contrast, there are some people who prefer what they call anti-beach reads. They argue that reading in the summer doesn’t need to, or even shouldn’t, be light. Summer is the time of year when many people’s schedules lighten up. There are less social obligations, often activities for children pause in the summer, and, of course, there’s vacation. (Don’t get me started on people who don’t want any books at the beach.)
The argument is that when a reader is on vacation, they have all of their mental energy available to them. They’re not thinking about meal plans and work calls and if the recycling needs to go out this Thursday or next. Their lives are on hold. There are hours available for prolonged periods of focus on a long, demanding book. Think books like A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, or 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami.
A reader’s brain is free to think critically about their reading material in a way they usually can’t in the regular world of their day to day lives. When it’s their night to make dinner for the house, their minds can run the subroutines about the book instead of about obligations or to do lists. It’s delightful serendipity wherein the reader has a delectable book they’ve been saving, and the whole day free to read it.