It's that time of year! Time to compile your summer reading list, those beach-or-park-or-otherwise outdoors-suitable books that can be read equally enjoyably inside, from your Papadum chair, seated in front of a large fan, or with the chilled puffs of an air conditioner during a heat wave wafting your hair from your shoulders, your ice cold lemonade propped next to you, sweating glamorously. These are the beachy, salty, spicy, not too hard, not too soft, but entirely compelling books that can withstand the glare of sun and the inevitable sleepiness caused by said glare. Everyone's busily putting forth what, exactly, you should be reading this summer (check NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and The New York Times, among others, for some helpful suggestions) so we won't bother you with that. Instead, we're supplying you with the information you need to choose your book—whatever it may be—all by yourself.
Your Beach Read Should Not Be Hard. By this we mean that your beach read should not be hard-covered. A paperback makes it so much easier to turn the pages and twist and turn the book to the shape of your liking in order to shield portions of it, or your eyes, from the sun. You can swat flies away with it without fear of carpal tunnel or sprains. If it gets wet or lost in the sand or sea, you won't be disturbed by the fact that you spent $20 or $30 or even $40 on it, and now it's ruined. Go paperback. Also: Eschew any large art books that cost hundreds of dollars and are far too large to lug around, to beaches or anywhere else, because those are most definitely not summer reads, and you will look like a jerk, kind of. (For example, if you haven't already: The Hunger Games, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter)
Your Beach Read Should Not Be Heavy. You will inevitably attempt to hold it over your face, both arms aloft, to keep the brightest noonday sun from shining directly in your eyes. If it is more than, say, a pound, your arms will tire and shake and you will drop it on your face, and this might leave a bruise, and also, is not relaxing or beachy. (50 Shades of Grey, while questionable in terms of content quality, is a very good weight.)
Neither Should Your Beach Read Be Too Flimsy or Fly-Away. Sometimes a beach read is essential for another use. Like, keeping your towel down. Or to secure the lid on top of the cooler of chilled beers. You don't want a pamphlet, a brochure, or a supermarket flier, is what we're saying. Unless you're buying hot dogs for the gang, in which case, we'll see you later. (Also a good weight: A Visit From the Goon Squad.)
Your Beach Read Should Not Be Difficult. No one reads War and Peace on the beach. Along with looking pretentious, that book is also just unwieldy (see above). A beach read needs to be a little more simple than your average fare—in fact, this is where you can get away with the easy stuff you wouldn't want to be caught reading at the coffeeshop, where the folks are SO JUDGY, or on the subway. It should have a plot. It can be well-written. But save the lyrical masterpieces and plodding, twisting, complex book mechanisms of, say, Umberto Eco or Tolstoy or James Joyce for a time when you're inside. You want the blockbuster summer movies of books, not the indie films. If you're reading Finnegan's Wake at the beach, playground, or park, you are doing it wrong. (For reading level, think Y.A., or, say, The Help, or Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series.)
Your Beach Read Should Be Comfortable, Like an Old Shoe. This is why they are called "beach reads": They uphold certain low-to-middling standards. These are the Law and Order episodes of books. They're all a little bit similar, maybe formulaic. This doesn't mean they're not good; au contraire, they are good because of this. You could easily revisit any number of beloved, much-read books from your youth over the summer: The Sweet Valley High series, for instance, is a wonderful beach read. But you could also branch out only very slightly with "literary" formulas and plot lines you are familiar with, packaged anew: Sexy vampires, the new "Shades of Grey," that's not Shades of Grey, the other new "Shades of Grey," or your favorite detective fiction or crime novelist's latest offering. Note: This is the perfect time to pull something off the shelf that you purchased over the winter but never got around to. You're already been paying its rent; might as well read it, too. (Read again: Pride and Prejudice, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; try new-but-familiar: the latest from Nora Roberts, Ann Patchett, Nicholas Sparks, Jennifer Weiner)
Your Beach Read Should Not Be About... Politics, religion, economics, genocide, terrible injustices done to man, war (unless it's fun-war), global warming/climate change, sharks eating people, stats, invasive and gruesome surgeries, anything "for dummies," or anything you might be embarrassed to be seen reading (see above "Shades of Grey?" This is a personal choice!) or possibly thrown off the beach/park/playground for. Avoid reading material that will cause you to weep hysterically in a way that cannot be hidden from prying eyes by sunglasses. Avoid anything by the author of The Da Vinci Code. Humor is fine, but remember you're in a public place. The rules of decorum still apply, and you're wearing fewer clothes than usual: Deep, extensive laughs have the power to shift things in the "body department." Avoid books that you cannot "put down," because a key if unsung element of a beach read is that you be able to put it down fairly easily should you need to break for daiquiris, to wander aimlessly into the ocean wearing a floppy sunhat and looking dramatically into the horizon, to chat briefly with your beach compatriots, to execute a sand castle mansion, to run to the public restrooms, to use both hands while eating ice cream, or to take a quick nap. (Summer Sisters, by Judy Blume, may be the optimum beach read on all counts.)
Most of all...
Your Beach Read Should Not Be Your Laptop Computer. Because that, that is sad.
Image via Shutterstock by Vichie81.