(Below is an edited transcript of a lecture Michael delivered in the Spring about “Beach Reads”. For even more specific recommendations, please come visit and ask.)
Accepting the initial premise, that there is such a thing as vacation reading, seems simple enough. At its broadest, the best definition I could come up with is that it is a leisure activity undertaken by people who do not spend their entire days surrounded by books that they should be reading and are not, figuring out why books are selling, or are not, or what it is that people will be reading next, or not, undertake for the general enjoyment of the activity itself.
So, I went about approaching the topic the best way that I know, what the academics among us would call a ‘thorough reading of previous literature and articles on the subject’, and which I have come to realize, and define in my post-university life, as “finding someone else’s good idea and stealing it”. This lead me to find a another term for the concept, “beach reads” as well as some background on the concept that I believe that I could agree with, in order to properly ground myself to move forward. Most notably, I came across a Guardian article by Michelle Dean from June 2016 entitled “Read it and keep: is it time to reassess the “beach read?”. And I quote:
“Now the term is so ubiquitous that its definitions are a point of contention. Many people, I’ve noticed by informally polling friends, are prone to distinguishing a beach read by genre. Some people thought all thrillers are beach reads; others thought all romances are. Some people thought only mass market paperbacks are eligible for beach read standards.
Some thought a beach read must somehow incorporate summer or a vacation into the plot. Others thought it should be more escapist than that. Still others thought that the beach read was a way to designate the one summer bestseller that everyone was going to read. Gone Girl came up a lot. And still others thought the concept is gendered, that books marketed to women are more prone to being called beach reads. This is perhaps true, but in a survey of the literature, as it were, I found it applied to plenty of male books, and in particular those written by James Patterson.
Still, the essence of the beach read, most could agree, was more of a mood than anything else: attached to vacation, the book shouldn’t have any really weighty themes or social significance.
It should be enjoyable and easy, with brisk pace and simple diction. An element of fantasy – either of the Straubian-gentrified Brooklyn type, the super-macho-spy-novel type, or the unicorns-and-feudal-lords type – is generally involved.
Above all, the reader shouldn’t feel they’re doing intellectual work. It’s all right if the beach read is a tearjerker, a bone-chiller or an adrenaline pumper: what it must never, ever be is something that gets the old neurons firing.”
With Ms Dean’s informal poll of friends in mind, I thought that I would move on in the first part of this conversation to unpack some of those ideas before we moved forward with that which I have been brought to discuss with you today. Being the proprietor of a bookstore, and a genre one at that, it is hard for me to deny that there is some element of the idea of a bestselling mass-market paperback thriller as a core part of the vacation reading cannon. Other “books of a summer” that sprung to my mind when thinking about this topic along with Gone Girl were The Da Vinci Code, The Lincoln Lawyer, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
That said, once I put that idea to scrutiny with my own sales data, I discovered that summer purchasing is equally as complicated as any other time of year. To do this, I reached back into the sales records for WhoDunit back to 2004, the first year that the bookshop kept digital records of its sales. While the WhoDunit? sales records are, admittedly, an imperfect metric for this kind of discussion, it does serve as a starting point from which I can discuss great detail, and work through in a variety of manner. While there were certainly examples of those like the books listed above as being incredibly popular over the summers of their respective years (and, in the case of the Stieg Larsson, over the three years in which the millennium trilogy was being released in paperback), there was no marked performance difference for books that were being released in the summer versus other times of the year. Bestsellers were present certainly, but you will not convince me that if Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince had been released in autumn, not the summer of 2005 that it would have done any less poorly. I know that to be true for the Steig Larsson titles, as The Girl who Played with Fire did not fare as well as GWTDT in 2011, mainly because I myself carried copies of the UK paperback in my suitcases home that Christmas before it was released here, skewing the data. Also, popular, but by no means spectacular authors continue to do well throughout the summer without any of the same fanfare; every summer WhoDunit? sells nearly the same number of Victoria Thompson’s GasLight Mystery series.
There may be a very worthy discussion to be had in regards to format, and the way that it may be affecting that gets shuttled into the category of “beach read”, but that is one that is certainly for another time. Suffice it to say that any bookseller will tell you that there is real difficulty in comparing sales from the past five years to any period before, mostly due to the rise of the trade paperback format, and the depletion of the mass market format.
Finally, on the issue of gender; I will really only say this: the most violent books that we stock at WhoDunit? are most regularly bought by one of our oldest customers, who buys the most violent, bloodiest, thickest books we have in any given month. Nor is she the only. The converse is equally true for a number of our male clients, who unashamedly buy the sweetest, saccharine cozies, or the syrupiest romances. The point to this is mostly for me to say that neither books, nor authors have specifically gendered audiences.
Subsequently, I thought it might be a good idea to move onto discussing some books that would fit into my and Ms Dean’s agreed definition of the “beach read”. As a result, I will try and create a (by no way exhaustive) list of books that fall within all parts of the spectrum that Dean has outlined. Some of these books are from extensive series, for those who want to put one book down and pick up another adventure with the same characters, while others stand by themselves. For any of you who have what my father has once described “the bane of the booksellers art”; that you need to read a series in order, I will certainly flag any series in this discussion for which those things are truly important. In general, a rule that will serve any book buyer well, regardless of what they are looking for in an author, is that the more recent the book has been written, the more likely it will be constructed for you to read it in order. Even until quite recently, books that had storylines that were interlinked were much more commonly found in defined trilogies, most notably, in terms of crime fiction, those produced by Len Deighton. The biggest difference in ease of access for some authors, at least in my own opinion, is that while if you want to read Donna Leon, Louise Penny or many other notables of modern crime fiction, you have to start at least with the first novel before moving forward to learn the secrets of Three Pines, or understand the relationship Brunetti has with his wife and his city. That is not true of many other older writers, who built their characters to popularity without the added concern of time, or aging. Sherlock Holmes even died and came back to life and it seems relatively inconsequential save for the two stories that deal directly with it.
These are a great way to meet characters without the concern of canon; also a wonderful way to consume multiple authors and themes all at once [new Bloody Scotland anthology, but also ones that deal with specific themes, or just random compilations]; allows readers to quickly digest a wide range, pick them up and put them down as they wish.
Arthur Conan Doyle [Holmes], Agatha Christie [Poirot & Marple], Michael Innes [Appleby], Ngaio Marsh [Alleyn], Dorothy Sayers [Wimsey], Josephine Tey [Daughter of Time]
-These characters are sometimes adopted by other writers, or sometimes the authors become characters themselves (Josephine Tey in the books of Nicola Upson)
-British Library Crime Classics; J Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White; great cover art which truly evokes the English countryside – authors like John Bude, Freeman Wills Crofts
Carolyn Hart [south Carolina bookseller character] and Janet Evanovich
Susie Steiner, Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins
Donna Leon, Peter May - authors for whom the setting can be just as, if not more important than the plot or the characters; evoking a sense of a faraway place that people find pleasing.
Louise Penny, Gail Bowen, Hilary MacLeod
Ellis Peters, CJ Sansom, Michael Jecks, Paul Doherty, Bernard Cornwell
Daniel Silva and John Le Carre
David Baldacci, Dan Brown, Vince Flynn, Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, Mary Higgins Clark
Women detectives of the interwar period Strangely specific I know, but nevertheless, an exploding genre including Jacqueline Winspear and Jane Thynne.
American Police Procedural
Michael Connelly [Bosch], Ed McBain
The evolution of the dime rack has brought us to this: books by authors that come out in huge amounts; in many ways these are the ‘male’ side of the cosy novel, advantaged by a lack of significant link between on and the next, or really even the interest in building series
John Grisham, James Patterson [saving literacy, resurrecting careers, short chapters], Stuart Woods [four Stone Barrington’s in 2018]
Ben Aaronovitch – 7 novels Rivers of London; stories that come in other formats
Terry Pratchett – 41 Discworld novels of his own, some (Tiffany Aching) could be considered YA; starting at the beginning will skew your perception of what the series is to become [high fantasy spoof vs. cultural satire]
Neil Gaiman – Good Omens
There are of course, also countless others that might be named, still more that I have either glazed over or missed, and some subgenres and authors that even I have no real familiarity with. And it is likely that your preferred summer reading may not come from any of these lists, or be from an author that no one else has ever heard of. Let me be quite clear; that’s okay. In fact, while I, with the aid of Ms Dean’s definition, have attempted to provide you with some sense of what exists in the world that can be thrown into the bottom of a picnic basket or a backpack, should you prefer to carry Dostoyevsky, you should not be discouraged from doing so either. Overall, the idea of vacation reading should be done with the individual taste in mind. To be sure, if you are the sort to find it relaxing to read technical manuals on the mating patterns of guinea fowl, you should take that with you to the beach. How you achieve the relaxation that you are seeking through reading should always come paramount, and what allows you to reach that relaxation should never be discouraged.
With that in mind, I hope that I have not been too scattered to follow, or simply covered too much about which you already know. I thank you once again for your time.