Why I Hate “Beach Reads”

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A day off and a sunny afternoon. Sitting on my deck, plus 20 degree weather, a yummy berry smoothie. It occurred to me that Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ News of a Kidnapping was kind of a dark read on such a beautiful day. Not that anyone should be surprised that a true story of kidnappings in Colombia might be depressing. That’s right up there with true facts of truth like if your name is the title of a Shakespearean tragedy, you’re going to die before the end of the play.

So I had this thought and I went back to reading. Because, yes, it was my day off but, no, that doesn’t mean I’m going to compromise my reading.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that life is too short to read bad books. Seeing as “bad” is a relative term when it comes to reading material, here’s my definition:

1. A poorly written book. It’s predictable. The language is repetitive. The plot is weak.

2. A book that tries to provoke you. Many amazing books make you think. They might challenge your assumptions or force you to view history from a new perspective (Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe or All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque are examples that spring to my mind.) This is a good thing. My issue is books that are obviously trying to provoke you through their language, characters, and actions. It all seems to be the author saying, “Aren’t I daring? Aren’t you shocked?” (Read this book review to see more of what I mean.)

3. A book that doesn’t challenge you. This might seem to be the opposite of my last point but I think a book that challenges you without provoking you is the mark of a good book. Crime and Punishment is a classic example. Or try The Poisonwood Bible for a more modern read.

4. A book that’s about nothing. Obviously, a book is always about something. Even a picture book is about something. But is there substance? This is my problem with romance novels. What is the message? I think as Christians, we especially need to ask ourselves what are we reading. Many romance novels (to continue with that example) are basically pornography for women. And the so-called “Christian” versions aren’t exempt simply because they lack sex scenes.

Here’s my bottom line when it comes to reading: A good book makes your life better. It leaves you happier or smarter or more curious.

So why on earth have we decided that going on vacation is a time to read trash? I think this comes from the mistaken idea that a “good” book is a hard book to read. (See: War and Peace) Sometimes that’s true (See: War and Peace), often times it’s not.

Starting in high school I would take difficult books along on vacation. This isn’t because I was such a brilliant kid, it was simply because I knew space was limited in my bag and a book that was harder to read would take me longer and thus, perhaps, last the whole trip. This is how I came to read Great Expectations, Gulliver’s Travels, and, yes, Crime and Punishment. My last tropical vacation found me reading One Hundred Years of Solitude on an island in the Philippines. Not exactly a “beach read” but so much better.

The sun’s coming out, summer vacations are being planned. Let’s make this our best-read summer ever!

I took a look at my shelves to pick the books I would recommend for a solid vacation read:

1. World War Z by Max Brooks

2. Theft by Peter Carey

3. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (Read my book review here.)

4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

5. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

6. Stardust by Neil Gaiman

7. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

8. Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway

9. Lost Horizon by James Hilton

10. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

11. Life of Pi by Yann Martel

12. Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

13. Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

14. The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett

This is far from a complete list since it’s limited to books I already own. What would you add? What’s your favourite non-trashy vacation read?

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