Reading at the Edge of the World

Jessanne Collins | July 7th, 2011

Haruki Murakami's catalog.

For five years in my otherwise landlocked twenties, I spent a week each summer with my best friend’s family at their rented beach house in Hatteras, North Carolina. It was an impossibly long drive to get there, the last turn before the road dead-ended at the ferry slip, the literal end of the land.

We carted in groceries by the cardboard boxful, and an extra blender for frozen margaritas. I toted an entire load of dirty laundry, both for the free washer and dryer and so as to not have to think about what to pack. I stocked sunscreen and bugspray in lieu of makeup and left my cell phone charger at home as there was no reception anyway. It was a week for wiping clean, of dedicating higher thought to only the essential questions, like which were the highest-scoring two-letter Scrabble words.

Long after they’ve been replaced and their space on my shelf filled, the best beach reads are the ones that are still embedded firmly in my head, springing to mind regularly, involuntarily.

The one thing I put any consideration at all into packing for this week out of the rat race — which meant, variously over that time span, working in retail, going to grad school, my first publishing job — was the half-dozen or so books I’d stash in the bottom of my laundry bag.

One year, I carried with me the entire paperback catalog of Haruki Murakami. It’s still water worn at the cracked spines where, more than once, the tide rolled in a bit too high while I read on, oblivious. During my requisite mid-MFA Southern Gothic phase, I had with me all the Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty I could lift.

I read all the modern classics there — the Jonathans, Zadie Smith, David Mitchell, Lorrie Moore. The beach was a time for catching up on all the reading I’d missed in the past year, or the past five years, or the past lifetime. But more than that, it was a place outside my otherwise obsessively literary civilization, where not even The New York Times Book Review reached. I lost all consideration for which things I should be reading, devoted myself entirely to the books that attracted my eye.

I think this is such an essential feeling to have now and then, especially for those of us who read voraciously, who keep up with criticism, or who read for a living. More often than not there is a calculus that goes into deciding what to read next, which book from the pile to prioritize. Interest — sheer giddy pleasure — plays some part. But not nearly enough in regular, real life.

Late last week I was packing up for a long weekend with the same family at a new beach house at the end of a different spit of land. As I examined my bookshelves, stuffed horizontally and to the ceiling, it occurred to me that the best beach reads are not necessarily the obvious ones. They’re books that are not even, necessarily, my “desert island” list — the favorites I read over and over. Largely, they’re not even books I still own, having long since pushed those off on friends who asked for vacation recommendations.

Long after they’ve been replaced and their space on my shelf filled, the best beach reads are the ones that are still embedded firmly in my head, springing to mind regularly, involuntarily.  They tend to be sagas of the great American offbeat: Vestal McIntyre’s Lake Overturn, about a crop of souls in small-town Idaho; Shelley Jackson’s twisted fairytale of conjoined twins, Half Life; Joan Didion’s electric, uncomfortable soap opera of a first novel, Run River; the hopelessly erotic and neurotic (and, importantly, abridged!) diaries of Anais Nin.

It’s a little too early to tell how the two I ended up toting south last weekend — Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Ben Loory’s Stories for the Nighttime and Some for the Day — place. If I had to guess which titles from this years’ crop of appropriately (not quite under-, but decidedly not over-) rated literature would fall in this highly subjective category a year or two down the road, I might dog-ear Matthew Gallaway’s The Metropolis Case and Emma Donoghue’s Room. But in the ever-prescient words of Levar Burton, when it comes to beach reads, don’t take my word for it. This is about you and a book at the edge of the world.