A couple of years ago, on a weekend in August, I was lying on the beach, reading. The sun shone, the waves crashed, and no plans lay ahead beyond soccer, grilling, maybe a stroll to the ice cream stand. My friend, on the towel next to mine, rolled over lazily and glanced at my book. His brow wrinkled. "Are you enjoying that?" he said, laughing.
What I was reading: an advance copy of a book about Whorfian linguistics — the mostly discredited idea that what language you speak affects how you think. In my defense, I was preparing to review it — you can take the freelance writer to the beach, but you can't take away her deadline — and it was, in fact, not uninteresting. But however you picture the quintessential summer read, a nonfiction book rehashing an old linguistics debate is pretty much the opposite.
We all know what vacation reading is supposed to be: engaging, narrative, crowd-pleasing, not too gloomy. Publishers put these books out in piles for summer; magazines and morning shows recommend their top fun picks for the season. And the best-seller list evokes a country issuing one big luxurious sigh as it settles into a hammock somewhere.
Summer 2012 may go down in history as The One When We All Read BDSM Romance Novels: 1 out of every 5 physical books sold this spring was from E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. But other choices ideal for the season are also in evidence: the fast-paced Hunger Games series; acclaimed tales of suspense both fictional (Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl) and nonfictional (Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken); a cathartic, Oprah-approved memoir (Cheryl Strayed's Wild). There's even an unexpected literary entry in David Mitchell's 2004 Cloud Atlas, which leaped into the Amazon top 10 after the release last week of a gorgeous new trailer for the movie adaptation, due out in October.
These may be beach books, but they're not "beach books." They're the books, fluffy or not, that we stash away all year to read in the one period where we might have time. In some cases, they're a sign of Americans continuing to work even while sprawled by the lake. (As has been noted recently, we are notoriously bad at leisure compared with, say, the French, who shutter the boulangerie and skip town like it's a basic right of man.)
Perhaps most of all, though, these less obviously summery books show just how individual our reading pleasures are. The best-seller list is where we meet, around the books that almost everyone likes; at the margins, we disperse toward our own idiosyncratic interests and tastes. Thus, when asked to recommend summer reading for a general audience recently, I didn't quite have the nerve to suggest Geoff Dyer's weird, funny Zona, a book that marshals a shot-by-shot recounting of a Tarkovsky film into a succinct meditation on criticism and existence. Only an alien, or a film professor, would consider it a Hot Summer Read. Nevertheless, it's one of the books I most enjoyed in recent months, and some people — not all — would find it an excellent vacation companion.
So, readers, tell us: What technical manuals or tales of genocide or academic monographs have you devoured next to the swimming pool? What are the most hopelessly unbeachy reads you have lined up to read this August? Or are you one of those readers who successfully steers toward pure readerly entertainment? If so, good going: Someone has to defend our leisurely national honor from the French. And when you're done reading Wild, pass it on — you never know when the guy with the programming manual might be ready for a change of pace.
Amanda Katz is a commentator for NPR Books and the deputy editor of the Boston Globe Ideas section. You can follow her on Twitter: @katzish