Beach reading doesn’t make much sense as a concept. The sun makes you sleepy. People nearby are wearing small pieces of clothing. Your friend asks you a question. The sun makes you sweaty. And there’s sand.
But the Internet is full of summer reading lists and I’ve always wanted to recommend six works of literature to bored strangers online, so I put together this selection of books I suppose you could read on a beach if you really want.
In the Freud Archives by Janet Malcolm
A page-turner about Freud’s discredited seduction theory. The story of an academic spat that reads like a thriller, while getting to the heart of a lot of fascinating issues in psychotherapy. Revolves around an enigmatic, charismatic, possibly sociopathic Sanskrit scholar turned hot-shot analyst who ended up suing Malcolm for libel.
A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley
Cult voice novel/thinly veiled memoir by an unapologetic, alcoholic, down-and-out, self-taught genius. Exley writes as Nabokov would if he were booted from academe and left with nothing but beer, resentment, televised football and a stupendous superiority complex. His paragraphs are recklessly crammed with adjectives but somehow absent of pretension:
“Bunny Sue was nineteen. She had honey-bobbed hair and candid, near-insolent green eyes. She had a snub, delightful nose, a cool, regal, and tapering neck, a fine, intelligent mouth that covered teeth so startling they might have been cleansed by sun gods. Without any makeup save lipstick, her complexion was as milk flecked with butter, the odor she cast as wholesome as bread. On my first breathless vision of her, I wanted to bury my teeth, Dracula-like, into her flanks, knowing that she would bleed pure butterscotch.”
Exley is sane, cheerful, witty company through his trip to a mental institution, the repeated implosions of his personal life and his vehement condemnations of just about every tenet of traditional society.
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
To avoid spoiling its science fiction-ish premise, critics tend to twist their reviews into contortions and make grand proclamations on the “unreality of the world” and the “banality of our scientific, intellectual, and especially erotic pretensions.”
But Casares’ ontological insights are grounded in a straightforward, irresistible adventure story about a fugitive stranded on a mysterious island who slowly and horribly learns the secrets of its inhabitants.
“To classify it as perfect,” Borges wrote, “is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.”
Crash by J.G. Ballard
A full-length novel about people who are sexually aroused by the wounds sustained in automobile collisions. If this sounds like the metaphor you’ve always been missing to make sense of our drowned and burning world, then you should read this book. If it doesn’t, then there’s really not much else to be said that will persuade you to read a full-length novel about people who are sexually aroused by the wounds sustained in automobile collisions.
The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
The whole book takes place in one man’s mind during his lunch break. He thinks about things like:
“Perforation! Shout it out! The deliberate punctuated weakening of paper and cardboard so that it will tear along an intended path, leaving a row of fine-haired pills or tuftlets on each new edge! It is a staggering conception, showing an age-transforming feel for the unique properties of pulped wood fiber.”
“You almost believe that you will never come to the end of a roll of tape; and when you do, there is a feeling, nearly, though very briefly, of shock and grief.”
Reading a 144-page novella full of musings like this will make you think differently about the minor-key delights of modern life and the possibilities of fiction — or at least it will make you think differently about shoelaces.
Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman
A great neglected Russian novel. This re-working of “War and Peace” — almost as long and almost as brilliant — takes a panoramic look at Soviet society during World War II. It explores, with meticulous Tolstoyan omniscience, the inner lives of Communist apparatchiks, nuclear physicists, engineers, nurses, soldiers in foxholes and Jews in death camps.
Grossman’s experiences in the Second World War as a correspondent for the Red Army newspaper would fit patly in an HBO miniseries: A witness to the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad and Berlin, his report on the liberation of Treblinka was one of the earliest press accounts of a Nazi extermination camp. In “Life and Fate,” Grossman translates his incredible access frictionlessly into fiction. His Stalingrad is as unforgettable as Tolstoy’s Borodino, and the chapters following a Jewish doctor on her inexorable journey to a gas chamber are among the most raw and rousing pages of the 20th century.
Seized by the KGB in 1961 and not published in Russia until 1988 (after the Soviet system had already begun to disband), censorship has robbed “Life and Fate” of a wider readership. But Grossman, every bit as talented as Solzhenitsyn at deconstructing the logic of totalitarian regimes, is a better writer and much funnier. And “Life and Fate” is easily as monumental an achievement as canonized samizdat like “Ivan Denisovich,” “The Master and Margarita” or “Doctor Zhivago.”