Mention beach books, and most people think of the same thing: the latest political thriller or pulp romance that’s meant to be read beneath umbrellas near the sun and surf.
But this summer, I’ve found myself turning once again to another kind of beach reading. What I mean are books about the beach, a small but lively genre of American literature that’s too often overlooked in a nation that is, after all, defined by coasts from sea to shining sea.
My affection for beach writing began several summers ago, when I came across a copy of Henry Beston’s “The Outermost House” during a vacation trip to coastal New England.
First published in 1928, and reprinted many times since, Beston’s book chronicles a year he spent in a tiny house on the shore of Cape Cod. Like the beachcomber who holds a seashell to his ear and hears the hum of the universe, Beston embraced Cape Cod as a compact portal into creation at large.
‘A compact portal into creation at large.’
For Beston, the beach wasn’t merely a postcard image. It was an intricate pageant of wonder, including the surf “aswarm with creatures,” waves that shake one awake in the depth of night, and the sea “plucked up and kneaded by the sun and the moon.”
Beston was an almost reflexive rhapsodist, and his penchant for finding epiphany in every scrap of driftwood or incoming tide can get cloying. But at just the point when “The Outermost House” begins to sound like warmed-over Walt Whitman, Beston throws in the darker shadings of Herman Melville, as in his brooding account of a gruesome shipwreck near his cabin that kills five, “the fifth this winter and the worst.”
Henry David Thoreau’s “Cape Cod,” perhaps America’s first great beach book, also begins with a shipwreck scene that includes multiple victims, underscoring how complicated the meeting of commerce and coastline has always been.
In a passage that seems to anticipate the coming carnage of the Civil War, Thoreau observes that as it enlarges, loss tends to grow into an abstraction: “If I had found one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place, it would have affected me more . . . It is the individual and private that demands our sympathy.”
That sense of intimacy informs “Gift from the Sea,” Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s extended reflection, inspired by time on Captiva Island, Fla., of how a sandy shore might spark personal renewal. Publishing her book in 1955, after American beaches had come into their own as tourist attractions, Lindbergh knew that equating trips to the shore with deep thought was a risky business.
“The Beach is not the place to work; to read, write or think,” Lindbergh says from the start, but of course, she doesn’t mean it.
In Lindbergh’s narrative, the lapping waves, shifting and improvising on a moment’s notice, come to be a kind of corollary to thought itself, a testament to why beaches have such a hold over us in the first place.
The best beach books are what all good writing should be—a call to attention; a sense of mystery; a raised alertness to what is permanent…and what is transitory. The beach books on my vacation reading list have at least one other virtue: They travel well into other seasons of the year. Readers can crack them open, even in the depth of December, and revisit the shoreline long after the beach towels and summer sandals are back on the shelf.
Mr. Heitman, a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”
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