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Julia Keller
Chicago Tribune, June 2009

Neil Gaiman and Elmore Leonard would seem to have little in common—the former is a fantasy writer who wears only black, the latter is a crime writer who doesn’t care about what he wears—yet during separate appearances at last weekend’s Printers Row Lit Fest, they made the same point: Beach vacations can be boring.

That insight may help to explain how the phrase “a good beach read”—commonly employed to describe a brashly captivating and unashamedly shallow novel—got started. People who don’t enjoy splashing in the ocean or sitting in the sun, but who still want to indulge in a family vacation with those who do, require a diversion.

I’ve always been slightly disappointed, though, at the so-so books allowed to cluster beneath the “beach read” rubric. Why not raise the bar a bit for beach reading? If you’re on vacation, presumably you’re enjoying a brief respite from the cares of work and thus can focus on something other than meeting deadlines and pleasing bosses. Your mind is free to explore sea-themed novels that challenge and provoke. Beach reading needn’t mean sinking down into the plummy embrace of Mary Higgins Clark; it can also mean a dip into the bracing waters of something new and different, or old and different.

The best beach read of all time is “To the Lighthouse,” Virginia Woolf’s luminous 1927 novel that is about—aptly—a seaside vacation, although admittedly that’s a bit like saying “ Moby Dick” is about a fishing trip. This is the most accessible of Woolf’s works, yet many people still shy away from it for casual reading, perhaps because the novel is so closely identified with term papers and stuffy lectures and dreary assignments to find and list all the symbols.

Forget the symbols. Just dig your toes in the sand, adjust the brim of your straw hat to keep the sunlight off the back of your neck and start reading. “To the Lighthouse” is about a British family that visits the same seaside cottage each summer, dragging along tennis rackets and lepidoptary kits and assorted kooky friends. Woolf magically captures the feel of a big, churning, chaotic family having fun, which chiefly means “playing games and talking nonsense,” as one of the friends describes it.

Once a novel is classified as “literature,” something awful seems to happen; people start revering it and stop reading it. The book is placed on a high shelf, maybe even tucked inside a glass-fronted cabinet, and there it sits—admired to death, in effect. If Woolf still had a say in the matter, I think she’d much prefer glimpsing a copy of “To the Lighthouse” with a smear of suntan lotion on its crinkled cover or with a bug crushed between pages 101 and 102.

Yes, the novel is about the ravages of time and the brevity of life and the looming tragedy of World War I—but it’s also about sunshine and long walks and a sea that is “stretched like silk across the bay,” as a character notes. It’s about abstract things, but it’s also about the golden, gritty specifics of family holidays: sand and wind and an annoying little brother.

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