Consider the beach book.
Or do you prefer the term "beach book"? Surrounded by quotation marks, that is, like "fast food," or "date movie." "Beach book," with its suggestion that there's one particular type of book -- and only one particular type of book -- that's supposed to accompany you to the summertime house near the large body of water.
I don't buy it.
Neither, apparently, does the current president of these United States.
Much interest from the luxury boxes this week, as the White House disclosed Barack Obama's reading list for his family vacation on Martha's Vineyard:
John Adams, by David McCullough.
Hot, Flat, and Crowded, by Thomas Friedman.
Lush Life, by Richard Price.
Plainsong, by Kent Haruf.
The Way Home, by George Pelecanos.
That's one presidential biography, one pop-wonk call to arms, and three -- count 'em, three! -- novels. So where does it say variety is allowed in a chief executive's reading list? What's the guy trying to do? Enjoy himself?!
Or -- alternative reaction: Five books in seven days? Who does he think he's kidding?
"That's 2,301 pages of recreational reading in a week," the always-sympathetic Wall Street Journal quickly calculated, "sandwiched between tennis, golf, meetings with friends, and possible calls to Congress. Aides say Obama is a speedy reader..."
Aides are missing the point. So is the Wall Street Journal.
The thing about beach books -- or even "beach books" -- isn't the total tonnage of the entire pile. It's the glow of the glorious possibilities.
When we go to the beach -- to pick a typical American non-presidential vacation cluster at random -- we always bring more books than we can possibly read in the time we'll be there. Hauling the book bag up multiple flights of stairs into a house perched high and wobbly on stilts, emptying this year's carefully selected contents onto the dresser top or the bedside table -- that's all part of the ritual. What's never part of the ritual is thinking we'll actually get through all of them.
But this is: Waking up on that first beach morning and saying, "What do I feel like today? A thriller? A tract? A fantasy? A romp?" And then picking exactly the right book to match your mood. It could be Elmore Leonard. It could be Fareed Zakaria.
It's all about having the options.
I've never been one of those "This is the summer I finally read Proust" types.
But I've never been one of those "This is the beach so it has to be mindless" types either.
A perfect beach book is whatever feels right -- serious, silly, sappy -- when you're contemplating spending the next unscripted chunk of time on a porch swing. Or on a beach chair, toes in the sand, happily distracted every few minutes by another set of waves nearing the shore. Or curled into a corner of a nook-filled living room, with others in your ragged band every bit as contented in their own nooks, with their own books.
A perfect beach book is one that doubles down on the place you're in -- geographically, emotionally. A perfect beach book is one that takes you away from all that.
A perfect beach book rewards concentration. A perfect beach book is a dabble.
A perfect beach book is one that, forever after, will remind you of how the rain pelted the picture windows that one dark-gray morning, how the sunlight slanted soft and golden that one luscious afternoon.
Consider a beach book.
Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at email@example.com.
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