Monday musings on Australian literature: Beach (or Summer) reads

It is currently summer down under and so, despite some unseasonably cold weather in various parts, the thoughts of many have turned to “beach reads”. Most of us understand that to mean escapist, easy-to-read, non-demanding fiction, although we don’t all define our own “beach reading” that way. But, do you know the history of the term and concept? Last month, Julian Novitz, from Swinburne University of Technology, wrote an article for The Conversation titled “Melodramatic potboilers, worthy classics and DIY escapism: a brief history of the beach read”. Of course I was interested.

Do you know when the term “beach read” originated? I was surprised to read that it only dates back to the 1990s. Novitz cites as his source a 2016 article by Michelle Dean in The Guardian. Dean wrote that:

the term only emerged in the 1990s, usually in book trade publications such as Booklist and Publisher’s Weekly. It was only around the middle of the decade that it migrated into the general lexicon and became something literary journalists began using.

(An aside: I did find a reference to “beach books” in the 1960s, on which more below.) Dean continues that

vacation reading is not a new concept. Ever since the 19th century, when novels were considered relatively sinful indulgences, leisure and fiction-reading have been closely associated. But it was not until the wide popularization of paperbacks in America in the middle of the last century that you began to see the beach so closely entwined with a page-turning thriller.

Dean doesn’t explore the history further, but Novitz does. He writes that communications scholar Donna Harrington-Lueker says that in the early 19th century, “holiday reading was often viewed as a mark of gentility and refinement” and that “travellers were encouraged to use their abundant time to appreciate worthy classics”. Recommendations for “perfect” summer reading included works of Lord Byron and Charles Lamb.

A combination of social, economic and technological developments – including increased literacy and the ability to publish books more cheaply – contributed to the rise of reading for leisure. The resultant “dime novels” popularised sensationalist thrills and adventure, and publishers started marketing “light literature” for summer reading. Novitz writes that:

Summer novels were typically presented as “agreeable” fiction, easy for vacationers to pick up and put down, cheap enough to be happily left or exchanged in hotels.

Of course, not all approved this trend, including those who didn’t think much of fiction in the first place. Novitz gives the example of the popular Brooklyn preacher Reverend Thomas De Witt Talmage who in 1876, labelled summer novels as “literary poison” and “pestiferous trash”.  However, even in the nineteenth century, not all saw summer reading as necessarily light. Novitz reports on Scribner’s suggested summer reading list of 1885. It included “Frances Hodgson Burnett’s passionate exploration of inequity and exploitation in the Lancashire coal pits (That Lass O’ Lowrie’s), the surreal, proto-science-fiction tales of Fritz James O’Brien, as well as travel writing, histories, and a small collection of Plato’s dialogues”.

Critics and publishers, Novitz says, have ‘defended summer reading as a necessary “release” from the stresses of the year’, but he argues that this “doesn’t necessarily imply triviality”, and concludes that

the best lesson to take from the history of the beach read is that if you can only get through a book or two while on holiday, then make sure they are ones you will like.

Amen to that …

What about Australia?

However, this is my Monday musings series, so to bring the discussion specifically to Australia, I went of course to Trove. I’m sharing just a handful of articles I found. They are too few to be regarded as conclusive or even properly representative, but they offer some insights …

On 26 December 1903, Rockhampton’s Capricornian ran an article titled “Summer reading”, in which the first half discusses the topic in some detail. It suggests that, for many, “a pleasant book in a shady nook will afford welcome relief and give agreeable exercise to the mind in the contemplation of novel thoughts, strange characters, and startling incidents”, but few will think about whether this time “will be well spent”. However, it says, this is being discussed “in some quarters”. The books most demanded from public libraries are “those classed under the head of fiction. All conditions of readers are alike imperious in their demand [my emph] for novels”. In fact, “the publication of works of imagination exceeds that of all other classes of literature” across the English-speaking world. The article describes in some detail what these works offer, including that “places and persons are portrayed with vivid realism” and that “good and bad characters are met with just as in real life, but those in fiction are the more interesting because the moving springs of their action can always be traced, and the consequences of their conduct considered and discussed. Human nature in all its strange developments and infinite varieties is strikingly illustrated in modern fiction and its consideration under diverse aspects and in startling forms is always pleasant occupation”.

Hmmm … just “pleasant occupation”. Indeed, says our writer, “the value of novel reading is meeting with lively condemnation”, with the time spent being “alleged to be not a pastime, but a waste-time”. S/he is not prepared to disagree outright with this, but does suggest that novel reading offers “a change of exercise to the wearied brain, and a subtle form of excitement to the system [and, for these reasons] it must be admitted to be worth more than can be readily estimated”.

A few years later, in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph (3 November 1911), there is a brief article titled “Books for summer reading”. It lists 20 books compiled by Andrew Lang, “an accomplished and quick-witted writer and editor”. Lang apparently suggested that “no one who is happily placed during the summer months reads at all” and then proferred his list, which included ‘… 3, “The High History of the Holy Graal”; (Mr. Sebastian Evans’s translation)… 8. Hazlitt (Essays); 9. Leigh Hunt (Essays) … “‘Confessions of St. Augustine; 12 Boswell’s “Johnson” … 19, Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall”‘. You get the picture. The article writer assesses the list:

Every book in this list is full of meat; there is no whipped syllabub for the undisciplined and the indolent. But when one considers the taste of the average summer reader as disclosed by the books placed at his disposal at summer resorts and on ocean steamers, this list is a huge satire.

Love it. Two decades later, we are moving on. In Adelaide’s Southern Cross on 10 January 1930, “K”, recommends some books suitable “for the holiday season in Australia, when the heat of summer interferes with serious, and sustained reading… the kind of mental fare palatable to those who are recuperating at the seaside or in the hills”. The books are published by Mills and Boon, “the enterprising London publishers … [who] … are constantly bringing out novels which are suitable for general reading.” Clearly “K” is happy with light summer reading.

More fascinating to me though is the Editor of W.A. Amateur Sports (20 November, 1931) who says about summer reading:

I am sure readers will have observed from their experience that, as in the case of our dietary needs, it is not in the best interest of our health to live on rich matter continually. Generally, there is no difficulty about that, since really good books are certainly in the minority, and we are compelled, in fairness to others, particularly if our reading is catered for by a circulating library, to be inflicted with a great deal of trash at frequent intervals. 

Oh dear … to be so “inflicted with a great deal of trash”. Anyhow, s/he sees summer reading as more varied:

Thrillers are in regular demand, whilst in more enlightened circles travelogues are never far from the hand of those who seek the Muse in solitude. Poetry comes once more into its own and the sun sets on many a magazine flung carelessly on beach or hammock.

Not “just” light fiction here.

Jumping now to times a bit closer to ours, we get Bookman in The Australian Jewish Times (3 November, 1961). He reviews three books by Australian writers, but starts off with:

Summertime is a period when ‘‘light reading”” is thought to be in order.

Whether this is because prolonged sunshine and heat make profound reading too much of a strain, or because so many people are making holiday moves that they cannot be expected to stick a hard text, l don’t know.

But round the world we get such publishers’ categories as “summer reading,” “hammock novels” and “beach books.”

There we have it, “beach books”. Not “beach read”, but much the same in concept.

He continues that these sorts of books generally come in “two types: the so-called light fiction, including detective and adventure novels; and the more or less diverting non-fiction of general interest and limited importance”. The three books he reviews are of the latter type, all non-fiction published by Angus and Robertson – John Bechervaise’s book on Antarctica, The far south; Alice Duncan-Kemp’s on life in northern Australia, Our channel country; and Helen McLeod’s on living in Papua New Guinea as the wife of a government official, Cannibals are human.

There is more to say, including about these books in particular so I’ll return to them. Now, though, it’s late so I’m closing here on a question:

What does “beach read” mean to you (if anything)?


34 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Beach (or Summer) reads

  1. You’re an hour late (and I’m sleepy). To go back an MM or two – were Bookstall books, and yellowbacks in general hardbacks? Or were they early paperbacks?

    Reading on the beach hurts my eyes. My holiday reading is likely to be solid to make up for all the dross the library supplies me (I agree with that commentator) during the year.

    I must research Mills & Boon and work out why Miles Franklin published with them in 1914 (ish).

    • Haha, Bill, yes, I was 45 minutes late to be exact, as we were out babysitting and I didn’t get it quite finished before we left!

      Good question re paperbacks. Bookstall books I knew were, but I had to check re yellowbacks. They too were paperbacks.

      I don’t much like the beach anyhow, but yes I agree. How can you get comfortable reading on the beach? And then you risk getting sunburnt. My reading is the same all year. I don’t really do escapist reading. I’m wondering whether than comes from being an optimist?

      Mills & Boon – yes, I agree. When I read that comment, I thought it worth checking them out a bit more one day.

  2. I think the idea of a “beach read” makes more sense to me in a country that has very hot summers! In a (standard) British summer where the temperature rarely gets above 25C, and normally not that high, I tend to feel like I can read more longer or more serious books because my concentration improves with the increase in daylight. But in the heatwave last year when it was approaching 40, I couldn’t cope with reading anything remotely substantial.

    • Ah, that’s interesting Lou … so you agree with the comment above that the actual temperature ( not just that it’s holiday time) can affect your reading concentration. The only time I think of temperature affecting my reading is when I’m in a cold bedroom and it’s too cold to hold the book outside the doona (and my eyes aren’t good enough anymore to read under it!) Of course, I could then read with gloves on!

  3. I’ve always been puzzled by the term. If beach reads refer to breezy books and page turners, we can have beach reads all year and not just summer. Further, not many of us have a beach to read. 🙂

    • Ah thanks Arti … which sort of begs the question. Do you see lists of “beach reads” in your papers in summer? Or do they just say summer or holiday or vacation reads?

      And you’re right about these sorts of books being around all year. The idea though is that people turn to light reading in summer when they are on holidays and for many (some?), holidays mean the beach, so these sorts of books are especially promoted in summer time.

  4. I sometimes take a paperback about the sea to the seaside (recent post about reading Moby Dick at the beach) but any paperback is a possible “beach read” for me!

  5. Interesting to learn that the term is so recent in origin. I’d assume it refers to lighter, fast paced reads, though for myself I’d probably interpret it as any book I’m reading at that point and carry to the beach to continue 🙂 but then I’ve even read Henry James when on vacation!

  6. I have confused memories of a trip to the Outer Banks (of North Carolina) about thirty years ago. I think that I took along The Age of Innocence and perhaps when done with that reread The Bonfire of the Vanities, on the shelf of the rented house. And a bit later I read some of The Mediterranean in the Age of Philip II, found in a rental house in Delaware; and bought Middlemarch in a used bookstore in Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania, a resort on a lake in northern Pennsylvania.

    A lot of our vacations require air travel, and for those a main requirement is light weight. I have nothing in principle against reading War and Peace on vacation, but I have no wish to carry it through airports.

    • You mean “light weight” as in pounds or kilos, George, not as in content? Of course there are the e-Books now, so you can read War and peace or, even Middlemarch for that matter as it’s a bit of a tome too, anywhere.

      The age of innocence sounds sort of perfect for an Outer Banks holiday, though I’m not quite sure why.

  7. I’m like you, Sue, I like the beach for looking at, not for getting sand in my shoes. We live within coo-ee of the Tom Roberts’ beach at Mentone and on a brisk Melbourne day we love to rug up and stride along the foreshore with Amber and have a coffee overlooking the water. But reading, I agree, how can you get comfortable at the beach? Alternatively, how can you read in a hammock? Or outdoors at all, if it comes to that… sun hurting the eyes and wind blowing the pages about…
    I think it’s just a marketing term to indicate that it’s for leisurely reading, probably pitched at people who don’t read much if at all, and it’s to indicate that the book isn’t going to be hard work.

    • Exactly Lisa … enjoy at the beach from a nice path or grassy patch but don’t get down there. And hammocks! They look lovely but I can’t get comfortable in one.

      I think you are right about its just being a marketing term to mean easy-reading fare – in terms of style and content.

  8. Hi Sue, beach reads for me means books that I can read when on holidays at leisure. The books are normally ones I have bought specially to read and savor. And, sometimes it also might involve me rereading a classic.

  9. I love the beach but rarely read at the beach – the sun, the wind, the sand between the pages.
    But on the few resort style holidays we’ve enjoyed, where lying by the pool is de rigueur, a good book is essential! In Bali I enjoyed reading Vicki Baum’s Love and Death in Bali, but I also read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, so not really light, comfort reads.

  10. It’s funny that a beach read changes. I instantly think thriller or romance, but there was definitely a chunk of time when everyone was reading Stephen King on the beach. Honestly, I just want to read a book that comes in mass-market paperback format. So pleasing to hold on the hands. I’m with Bill, though, that it’s so bright outside.

    • Ah yes interesting point Melanie, that the genre has changed … though I think crime has remained popular for decades. I know what you mean about the format being relevant … something easy to hold, and I guess to carry? But I agree too … it can no tee bright for reading.

      • I’m not sure if mass-market paperbacks are the same in Australia, but here they usually cost about $7.99, and you can be sure some of the print got cut off a bit somewhere because they’re so cheaply made, but there is just something I love about them.

        • Way more expensive than that here unless they are classics and even then you are usually paying over $10. Current fiction – say a crime novel – is usually around $19.99 at the cheapest. But I prefer the larger Trade Paperbacks because they are easier to read, open better etc – and have a margin I can write in!

  11. Interesting history about the origin of “beach reads.” I don’t think I have ever related the term to any books that I read, because, being somewhat literally minded, I assumed beach reads were books that you actually read at the beach. We didn’t go to the beach too much when I was growing up and we were too busy swimming, collecting shells and building sandcastles to worry about reading. Beaches aren’t always the most conducive environments for reading. On a recent trip to Adelaide we went to the beach one afternoon and it was so windy that I’d be afraid the book would have been ripped out of my hands. And, well, Toowoomba is a good few hours from the beach…so perhaps “holiday read” is a term I would be more likely to use.

    • Haha Karen … I’m not a beach person myself but I did understand the term
      to mean summer holiday reading. I don’t think beaches are conducive to reading either for all the reasons people including you have given.

    • Wow, A suitable boy in paper or e-book Liz? Regardless of “lightness” or “heaviness” in content that’s one large time to lug around on holidays! Middlemarch is big enough too. I do live e-books for holidays because you can take as many as you like, you can suit them to your reading preferences at the time, and you need never run out.

      • Ha – it was the one-volume paperback so why I did that I don’t know (it was a re-read so at least I knew I was going to like it!). It was pre-Kindle though. I do love having the e-reader now, although I still like to have a “real” book for the journeys, just in case (what? they see it and say no you can’t have it on aeroplane mode, you must turn it off?).

  12. What a fantastic blog post, a subject I had never given any thought to. And just for the record as someone who burns in the dark, my beach reading is indoors.

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