Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Sociology of Beach Reading

Beachy...and Fun!

Here's a note on the very importance of beach books: not just that books are objects that we enjoy taking to the beach, taking on vacations, or just taking with us to keep us occupied, but something else.  In the paper I recently gave at the ATLA conference in St. Louis (which I'll discuss all so briefly in a forthcoming post), I spoke about what I called the "valence and hybridity" of reading.  Effectively, I used this phraseology to describe both the types of readers in the world and their relationships with books and the world around them.  More specifically, I assessed the reader as "social," "solitary," or "hybrid."  And within these categories I noted that not only is the role that the reader plays important, but also the "observer."  People--myself included--watch, observe, see, recognize, (another verb?) other people read.  And within this capsule of action, there are spaces of orientation found among the participants (reader, book, and observer).  And during the summer months, this is perhaps nowhere more relevant or apparent than on beaches across the country, even around the globe.  Now take these folks in the colorized photo postcard above, supposedly an image from a beach in California taken around 1905 (and appropriated from Wikipedia, thank you very much--and of course, in the public domain).  They are enjoying themselves.  Playing in the sand, carrying parasols, and entertaining friends among other things.  Surely, a few of them were beach readers (even if this antique image doesn't testify to that).  But today I went to the beach with the family.  We enjoyed the fresh sea breezes (aka "Lake Michigan breezes"), the clear blue sky, and the scents of charcoals burning, and off-gassing the comestibles of choice (for one could tell if you were sitting next to a Pole roasting chops or the Landsman of choice grilling skirt steaks marinated in salsa verde).  What I also noticed, though, while the wind wasn't whipping up like the inside of a Cuisinart, was what people were reading.  Like some of the studies I've done in the past, the books that people carry and read demonstrate or show to the world a certain aspect of the reader without that person having to say a single word: the semiotics of the book at work once again.  But it goes further than this.  The carrying of books in public places, especially at beaches, which are wide open spaces where people go to relax and read, and may attract hundreds, if not thousands of beach-goers, is a social space and social location where another symbiosis takes place.  This symbiosis is somewhat of a confluent praxis.  That is, we observe the mass of readers in their locales, positions, in their trunks or bikinis, reading their books.  And for those of us interested in what other people read, we glance quickly at the covers of their books to see what it is they're reading.  What is that book?  Do I know it?  Have I read it?  What does that title say about the person?  Well, many things could be said about this, and certainly you readers of this blog will have your own opinions as well.  For now, though, let me share a few brief observations of the books I came across (and now remember) from this afternoon:

John Locke, Treatise on...  (read by a scruffy 20-something, laying on his back, on the grass): I don't even remember the full title, but the fact that someone was reading JOHN LOCKE at the beach is all I have to say!

Kate Jacobs, The Friday Night Knitting Club (read by a bespectacled twenty-something woman, sitting on a wall near the beach):  look, someone's gotta read this stuff, why not?  Maybe it's even a decent read.  I checked out the reviews of this book, and I'm sure I'll never read it.  But again, it tells me something about a complete stranger in a very mysterious and curious world...whether or not I wanted to know it!

Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers (held by a young 20-something Asian / Asian-American woman) Perhaps most interesting in this observation was that there were 4-5 young women going to sit on a bench together.  One of them was holding two copies of this book.  The book, again, one which I've never heard of, is a tale of early 20th century Jewish immigrants and the details of their quotidian experiences in a new culture.  What might we see?  Book group...women's literature...immigrant and "ethnic" literature, among other things.  Could be a book I might read.

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (held by late-20s/early-30s geekster-cum-hipster) I didn't even have to read the title...I could see the design from afar!  I wonder what that means?  This IS a book that I've wanted to read, and will probably do soon.

The main point of this exercise was to examine the power of symbols and images and the "imaging" that books put forward in our social contexts and locations.  For me, to see books in public is not simply to "see" them, but to engage with them, even if I'm not even touching them or reading them (i.e. reading their content, rather than their covers for information).  This engagement is a relationship of action, where I am actively learning and acquiring information. I am learning new titles and texts--not from reading the NY Times Book Review or some reviews in journals or online, but from seeing the physical object in the hands, in the presence of someone else.  I make (and I think many people make) judgments about texts based on their responses or reactions to "covers" or "their readers."  How many of you do this?  The sociology of books and especially on beaches is something important for us to think about.  It has a role for all of us.  Oh, I guess the beach does too. 


  1. I enjoy reading your blog.

    Just curious -

    Did you notice any Kindle Wireless Reading Devices at the beach?

  2. None what-so-ever! I thought about that and looked far and wide. Not a single one. What does this indicate, if anything?