The Great Escape

What A Proper 'Beach Book' Should Do, Most Readers Agree, Is Entertain, Not Strain The Brain.

Summer Reading

June 26, 2005|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

On the boardwalk of Rehoboth Beach, Baltimore attorney Bill Brooke didn't appear to be breaking any rules as he sat quietly on a bench and read a book.

But amid the serenity, interrupted only by the muffled sounds of waves crashing, children squealing and gulls screeching, Brooke was defying convention -- or at least conventional wisdom.

It wasn't that he was reading, or how he was reading, it was what he was reading: Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.

That's no beach book.

No, a "beach book" -- or so publishing houses, book retailers and newspaper and magazines say -- are crowd-pleasing, fast-moving, not too deeply brain-straining page-turners, commonly, but not always, fiction.

Nobody's certain when the term was born. But it was probably the 1960s or '70s when, as a marketing ploy, it began being bandied about, perhaps in connection with a steamy paperback by a Jacqueline Susann or Harold Robbins -- a book that, once read, stained with suntan lotion or lapped by waves, could be thrown away or left behind.

Since then, the term has taken on a life of its own -- its meaning growing so broad as to include more than fiction, more than paperbacks, more than "trashy" novels. Now it is used not just for any entertaining or popular read, but for virtually anything publishers want to sell in the summer.

When summer rolls around, "beach book" is clearly the term of choice in the publishing industry, much like "pre-owned" is to used- car dealers, "Salisbury steak" is to diner owners and "cozy cottage" is to real-estate agents trying to pique interest in that tiny shack on the bad side of town.

Like all things hyped, there is some truth to it. About half of the beach-reading public opts for fast-paced, escapist fare, according to a recent and very informal survey at a beach that, granted, is probably more well-read and upscale than many.

"I came down here with every intention of going to the bookstore for a mindless, or not so mindless, entertaining mystery," said Brooke, the attorney who has vacationed at Delaware's Rehoboth Beach since childhood. But instead of picking up the latest thriller from Grisham or Clancy, Brooke bought a book a friend had recommended, Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. He also grabbed a copy of 101 Things People Should Know About Judaism.

Normally, he goes for lighter reading during a beach trip -- at least since giving up on the idea of using beach time to catch up on work-related reading.

"When I was younger, I would bring a stack of old professional journals," he said. "Now I prefer to find something that is more entertaining. I think, unless you're a type A workaholic, most folks want to read something entertaining."

Off the boardwalk, out in the sand, about one of every five beachgoers was reading. Of them, about half had brought what could be considered a "beach book."

"I mostly read crap," said Jean Hutter, a Washington, D.C. lobbyist, taking a pause from The Last Precinct by Patricia Cornwell. "This is about serial murderers and is loaded with disgusting and revolting details. I don't even like the protagonist. But it's a great beach read."

Her friend, Jean Zakotnik, a computer programmer from Potomac, was reading What the Dog Did by Emily Yoffe. It was making for a better beach read than the book she just finished, Benjamin Franklin, An American Life, which she termed "not a great beach read."

"It was thick and heavy, and one you want to keep on your bookshelf, so you have to worry about suntan lotion leaking all over it," she said.

Last summer, Zakotnik read Anna Karenina, the summer pick of Oprah Winfrey's book club. (This year, Oprah returned to the classics, picking three novels by William Faulkner.) But Zakotnik said she usually prefers something lighter at the beach -- "something you can read, and listen to conversation, and think about what you're having for dinner at the same time."

You don't want anything too deep, you're here to relax -- to sit in the sun, and just veg," said Angela Onwuantibe, a physician from Ellicott City. She was reading You: The Owner's Manual, by anti-aging guru Michael F. Roizen and celebrated heart surgeon Mehmet Oz.

Her niece, Adaugo Opara, a college student, was reading Sula by Toni Morrison. She had packed her organic chemistry textbook, but "My mom saw it in my bag and told me to take that out."

Up the beach a ways, Oksana Pidufala, an international affairs student from D.C., was reading a French grammar book. Next to her, Dan Paulson, a business management consultant, was reading a magazine, The Economist.

"I read casually, and I read lighter things," Paulson said, "but I don't correlate what I read with where I'm at. What I bring to the beach is whatever I'm reading at the time."

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