Monday, July 21, 2008

Beach Reading

We have been goofing off in a big way. We went to the beach in South Carolina with a group of college friends and some relatives, and we all shared a couple of houses and several seafood dinners. I told my kids that they may be the only kids in Ohio who go crabbing more often than they go fishing--which is to say, once every two years. There were so many people to talk to and so much ocean to splash in and so many sand castles to build that I got very little reading done. We built a sand Bastille on July 14 and watched the waves storm it.

One afternoon I went back out to the beach with a book. We usually go out in the morning and come back in for lunch, because I have fair-skinned children. But the fair of skin were inside drawing pictures and watching YouTube videos, so I went out in the noonday sun ("do as I say, kids, not as I do"). As I walked towards the surf with my book and chair, I noticed a woman holding a copy of Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer. So I asked her if she was enjoying it, and she said she hadn't started it yet. "I didn't like the ending," I told her.
"Well, maybe I won't start it then," she said.
I was nonplussed. I'd hate for anyone to judge Barbara Kingsolver novels by that one, and I do think the ending is significantly flawed. But did I mean to make her give up the effort entirely? I suspect the woman found it on a shelf in her rented beach house.

It's possible that you shouldn't ever read anything you find on a beach house bookshelf. Usually they're books that someone read and left, which tells you about all you need to know. Unless, of course, the other people who rent beach houses don't reread books. There's probably a reason that the book shelf in our house was below the television.

But I like what Michael Chabon says about the short story in his essay "Trickster in a Suit of Light," included in his volume Maps and Legends:

"Entertainment has a bad name. Serious people learn to mistrust and even to revile it. The word wears spandex, pasties, a leisure suit studded with blinking lights. It gives off a whiff of Coppertone and dripping Creamsicle.... But maybe these intelligent and serious people, my faithful straw men, are wrong. Maybe the reason for the junkiness of so much of what pretends to entertain us is that we have accepted--indeed, we have helped to articulate--such a narrow, debased concept of entertainment....Therefore I would like to propose expanding our definition of entertainment to encompass everything pleasurable that arises from the encounter of an attentive mind with a page of literature."

Except that I might quibble with the "attentive mind" part. I sometimes take pleasure from reading with about three-quarters of my attention on the book, and the other quarter on watching a child play or the waves crash on the shore. I have fond memories of books that I associate with what I was doing at the time--there's an entire series I read while nursing my firstborn, and often she and I have a soundtrack for a certain book after reading it once while listening to music (and yes, the soundtrack is sometimes replaced by the movie soundtrack).

Chabon points out that "the undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult reader only as "guilty pleasures" (a phrase I loathe)." Of course, he's writing an essay, which is a serious form and suited to such statements. Many bloggers disagree that SF and mysteries are pleasures that you should feel guilty about. Certainly I disagree. And yet that does not detract from Chabon's point, which is that short story writers need to break away from "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story." That's what worked yesterday. Tomorrow we need more experimentation between "the boundary lines, the margins, the secret shelves between the sections in the bookstore."

And when writers start playing around with those margins and borders, then maybe we'll get more good short stories, which are (like essays), good beach reading.


SFP said...

Which beach did you go to? We usually go to an island near Morehead City in NC, but I grew up going to Myrtle in SC. And I LOVE Charleston area beaches.

Jeanne said...

We went to a Charleston area beach, near Sullivan's Island. East coast beaches are all getting more crowded, this one included, so I don't really want to advertise its charms in particular. We like going into Charleston to the market, a nearby bookstore, and the many good restaurants. This year we went to 82 Queen Street, as usual, and found the food no longer worth the hefty price, although the outdoor courtyard seating area is as charming as ever.