Jeffrey Eugenides ’82 hates reading on beaches.
“They’re too hot,” says the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Middlesex and The Marriage Plot. “You get sand in your books or suntan lotion all over the pages.”
And don’t get him started on the “beach-read” genre. “I just don’t get any pleasure from reading badly written, generic stuff,” he says. “I feel the way a cocaine addict might after snorting baking soda. Cheated. Waiting for a kick that never arrives.”
Meg Wolitzer ’81 has a slightly different perspective. “I still recall being a kid and reading books for our local library’s summer reading club,” says Wolitzer, the author of ten novels, including the New York Times best-sellers The Ten-Year Nap and The Interestings. “I read intensely, on the beach and in our cool basement on a hot day, and at the end of the summer there was a ceremony with a magician. I still read fiction all summer—and all year, too—despite the absence of a magician.”
Amy Sohn ’95, author of the New York Times best-seller Sex and the City: Kiss and Tell and such dishy novels as Run Catch Kiss and Prospect Park West, likes beach reading so much she’s willing to break some rules. In the Cape Cod town where Sohn vacations, the local library does not allow patrons to take books to the beach. “I do anyway,” she admits, “then try to shake out the sand before I return them.” Until then, “I can be found with a pale ale in one hand and a book in the other.”
And, when we asked Scott Poulson-Bryant ’08 if he scoffed at the idea of beach reading, he scoffed at the question. “Scoff? I don’t scoff,” he says. Between cofounding Vibe magazine in 1992 and earning his Ph.D. in American Studies at Harvard this spring, Poulson-Bryant wrote Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America and The VIPs: A Novel. “Scoffing gives you wrinkles faster than the sun on the beach does.”
Read on for more summer reading advice. Then kick back on the sand with War and Peace or hide inside, cooled by the A/C, plowing through a stack of Harlequins. We won’t judge.
Rick Moody ’83
BEST KNOWN FOR The Ice Storm, a 1994 novel made into a 1997 film starring Sigourney Weaver.
PLEASURE READS The Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote, Dante, Joyce, Proust.
WHY SO SERIOUS? “By and large I only read what I find moving, challenging, complex, and literary. And that is my pleasure. I once tried to read the first few pages of The Da Vinci Code, but it hurt my ears.”
C'MON NO GUILTY PLEASURES? “I might very occasionally read a rock-and-roll biography if the subject is of great interest—Elvis Costello’s memoir, for example.”
WHAT DOES A "BEACH READ" MEAN TO YOU? “A ‘beach’ read does not suggest to me, and never has, some kind of book that is ‘easy.’ I have read Solzhenitsyn on the beach. My reading time is precious to me, so I don’t often read dismissable books.”
WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO READING NEXT? “Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Book Three; William James; the new Dana Spiotta novel (Innocents and Others); the new Samantha Hunt novel (Mr. Splitfoot); Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Heidegger.”
Quiara Hudes ’04 MFA
BEST KNOWN FOR Writing the book for the Tony Award–winning musical In the Heights and the Pulitzer Prize–winning play Water by the Spoonful.
SUMMER READING? “I always have big ambitions for summer reading, especially in relation to the classics I’ve never read. ‘Oh, I’m gonna read all of Chekhov. Oh, I’m gonna read the Mark Twain greats. Oh, it’ll be my summer of Hemingway.’ Then summer flies by and I’ve failed.”
OTHER THAN UNREAD CLASSICS, WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR THIS TIME OF YEAR? “Something gripping and dreamy. A sense of disorientation and urgency. A strong authorial voice. Mostly nonfiction.”
ANY FAVORITES? “In the fiction arena, my favorite summer reading memory was in Vieques, Puerto Rico, plowing through [Haruki] Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore. It’s [also] a rich moment for long-form personal essays. The Argonauts [Maggie Nelson], Between the World and Me [Ta-Nehisi Coates], Just Mercy [Bryan Stevenson], M Train [Patti Smith], and Citizen [Claudia Rankine] are recent favorites—works of poetic ferocity, soaking you (or drowning you) in worldview.”
Meg Wolitzer ’81
BEST KNOWN FOR New York Times best-selling novels The Ten-Year Nap and The Interestings.
DO YOU LOOK FOR ANYTHING IN PARTICULAR WHEN YOU READ FOR PLEASURE? “I want all the books I read to be absorbing, to pull me in and make me want to spend a lot of time in their particular world.”
ANY FAVORITE ABSORBING READS? “It’s a cliché by now to say that I love Elena Ferrante, but I do. Those books are extremely riveting, and it’s been gratifying to have a literary series in my life.”
WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO READING THIS SUMMER? “The next Dave Eggers novel, Heroes of the Frontier.”
Rowan Ricardo Phillips ’03 PhD
BEST KNOWN FOR The critical work When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness, on African American poetry, and for his own award-winning poetry, including the collection Heaven, which was nominated for a National Book Award.
WHAT DOES A "BEACH READ" MEAN TO YOU? “I’m a pretty literal thinker, so a beach read is something you bring along for a trip to the beach. It still counts if you’re in the house but, you know, near the beach. It’s a book that’s a part of the entire experience of being away from it all and connected in a visceral way to the sea and shore.”
WHAT'S ON YOUR LIST FOR THIS SUMMER? “Emma Cline’s The Girls and Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons.”
YOU DON'T SCOFF AT BEACH READS? “I never scoff at reading. I’m just grateful and hopeful that we continue to read.”
Kate Bornstein ’69
BEST KNOWN FOR Her theater production Hidden: A Gender, her groundbreaking 1994 book Gender Outlaw, and her recent sparring with Caitlyn Jenner on the E! Network reality show I Am Cait.
WHAT ARE YOUR ALL-TIME FAVORITE BEACH READS? “Last summer I reread To Kill a Mockingbird, immediately followed by Go Set a Watchman, and then immediately listened to Mockingbird again on an audiobook, read by Sissy Spacek. Heaven! I always wanted to be Scout, with Atticus as my father—and I found I still wanted to be her. And I still love Atticus, despite the fact that he ages into the kind of man my own father was—so in an odd way, I learned a deeper love for my father.”
WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO READ WHEN YOUR FEET ARE IN THE SAND? “The best beach reads have always been books I’m incapable of writing. I wanna be wowed—I wanna laugh and cry, and I wanna gasp out loud. For fiction, I want reads that seduce me into being the central character, living their fantastical life. For nonfiction, I look for loving guidance in achieving deeper and deeper levels of wisdom and compassion.”
DO YOU HAVE A LIST FOR THIS SUMMER? “I’m hoping to finish the first draft of a new book I’m working on: Trans! Just For the Fun of It! So, not sure how much I’m going to read, but topping my list right now are Changers Book Three: Kim by T Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper (young adult fiction by two of my favorite authors) and Doctor Who: The Tenth Doctor Adventures!, a three-volume set of audio books by Matt Fitton, Jenny T. Colgan, and James Goss, read by David Tennant and Catherine Tate.”
ARE BEACH READS TO BE SCOFFED AT? “Oh no, I do not scoff at beach reads. I coauthored a book that was proclaimed to be one of the ten best beach reads of the summer of 1996 by People magazine: Nearly Roadkill, An Infobahn Erotic Adventure.”
Jeffrey Eugenides ’82
BEST KNOWN FOR His Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Middlesex; The Virgin Suicides, which was made into a film by Sofia Coppola; and The Marriage Plot, an acclaimed novel set at our very own Camp Bruno.
IS THERE A PARTICULAR KIND OF BOOK BEST SUITED FOR THE BEACH? “Cheap paperbacks are best for taking to the beach, but that implies that the material inside should be cheap as well. And this is where I disagree. I’m as happy as the next person to eat junk food or to watch junk TV. But when it comes to reading, I just don’t get any pleasure from reading badly written, generic stuff.”
TELL US HOW YOU REALLY FEEL. “Just because it’s summer and the weather’s nice doesn’t mean that life has become any less thrillingly complicated. The books you read on vacation should add to your life. Reading is an experience, not a break between experiences. You might not have the money to go on vacation anywhere you like. But you can bring the literary equivalent of the French Riviera in your suitcase for the same price as packing, say, Toledo, Ohio. I guarantee that anyone who takes Anna Karenina to the beach (or anywhere else) will have a better time reading it than any so-called ‘beach read.’ That goes for Pale Fire by Nabokov, though I’ll admit the Nabokov is slightly more work.”
Lauren Acampora ’97
BEST KNOWN FOR The Wonder Garden, a collection of linked stories, named one of the best books of 2015 by NPR and Amazon.
WHAT'S YOUR TAKE ON SUMMER READING? “I’m not a huge beach person, and what I read in summer isn’t different from any other season. I save books for winter reads, books to curl up with by the fire.”
ANY BOOKS YOU RETURN TO AGAIN AND AGAIN? “It’s rare for me to reread, but I have gone back to The Great Gatsby, Lolita, and To the Lighthouse.”
DO YOU HAVE A TO-BE-READ LIST? “I’m always trying to fill in the gaps. I’m a John Cheever fan, but I’ve never read Falconer. I loved Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and The Secret History, so I’m planning to read The Little Friend very soon. I’d like to read T.C. Boyle’s latest novel, The Harder They Come. Another huge hole is War and Peace. It’s quintessential. I should stop delaying. It doesn’t make sense to put it off any more. I’ll tackle it soon.”
Alexandra Kleeman ’07
BEST KNOWN FOR Her debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, which the New York Times called “brilliant and disturbing.”
WHAT KIND OF BOOKS DO YOU LIKE TO READ ON THE BEACH? “Books that I fall into, get absorbed by. I think it’s wonderful when a book creates another world, one that feels more gripping than our own. It inverts reality: the people in the book feel more real than everyone around you.”
ANY FAVORITE EXAMPLES? “The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark. It’s an intense, short murder mystery with an amazing twist, so once you start reading it you’re hooked until the end. Also Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, which is a take on pulp detective fiction. It has a deep intellectual structure but still retains that genre hook. There’s nothing more satisfying than needing to consume a novel at top speed, and having the time to do it all at once.”
WHAT'S ON YOUR LIST FOR THIS SUMMER? “I’m excited for The Girls by Emma Cline. It’s the perfect mixture of sunshine and doom.”
Scott Poulson-Bryant ’08
BEST KNOWN FOR Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America, and his role as cofounder of Vibe magazine.
WHAT KIND OF BOOKS DO YOU READ TO UNWIND? “Reading is almost always an unwinding experience for me.… I think I’m just one of those Type-A people for whom keeping my mind active is a kind of unwinding!”
IS READING ON THE BEACH DIFFERENT? “‘Beach read’ doesn’t have to mean much more than simply reading on the beach. I think it’s the sound of the waves and the feel of the sun on my skin—as opposed to being stuck at my desk—that makes the experience singular.”
ANY FAVORITES FOR READING ON THE SAND? “Thrillers, any time, anywhere, really, but especially on the beach. My favorites, of late, tend to be Lee Child, Daniel Silva, and Nelson De Mille, page-turning perfection for under the sun.”
WHAT'S ON YOUR LIST FOR THIS SUMMER? “There’s a new Daniel Silva, so that tops the list. Alas, I also start a tenure track job in the fall, so I’ll be rereading a bunch of Harlem Renaissance writers like Nella Larsen, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes for the graduate seminar I’m scheduled to teach.”
Marie Myung-Ok Lee ’86
BEST KNOWN FOR Her acclaimed novel, Somebody’s Daughter, and her role as a judge for the National Book Award.
YOU READ ALL THE TIME. ANYTHING DIFFERENT ABOUT THE BEACH? “Summertime attitude means I’m not grading things and have (at least in my mind) few deadlines, so in the sweetly fragranced airiness of the beach house (we return to Li’l Rhody every year) I traditionally indulge in rereads of my favorites and books I didn’t have time to crack open this semester.”
WHAT FAVORITES DO YOU COME BACK TO MOST? “Moby Dick and Middlemarch.”
TELL US YOUR LIST FOR THIS SUMMER “The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. And Moby Dick and Middlemarch!”
ANY MEMORABLE BEACH-READING EXPERIENCES? “I just spent two weeks at the Point Reyes National Seashore, reading and writing, thanks to a fellowship from the Mesa Refuge. ‘Beach read’ for me is more conceptual than actual; the sand, the too-bright light, the wind turning the pages before you’re ready makes it such that during those glorious two weeks of the residency, I read my eyes out but did not bring a book to the actual beach.”
Lois Lowry ’58
BEST KNOWN FOR Newbery Medal–winning children’s books Number the Stars and The Giver.
THOUGHTS ON BEACH READING? “I avoid the kind of mindless novels that often fall into the conventional ‘beach read’ designation. If I am truly looking for unalloyed pleasure, I generally seek out the latest offerings of my favorite authors. Often these would be Julian Barnes or Ian McEwan. I don’t know why I focus on Brits!”
WHAT ARE YOU READING NOW? “Often I focus on a theme related to my own circumstances. I’m on an extended trip to Africa, so I downloaded some of the Hemingway short stories set here. Going back to Isak Dinesen’s classic [Out of Africa] is another treat. I have also recently reread Anita Shreve’s A Change in Altitude. Anita is a friend of mine, and this book, not her best known, is a personal favorite. As I head to Cape Town, I am undertaking My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan, a personal account of his coming of age in, and coming to terms with, the tragedy of his own country, South Africa.”
A.J. Jacobs ’90
BEST KNOWN FOR His New York Times best-sellers The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible and The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO READ WHEN YOU WANT TO UNWIND? “I’m not such a good unwinder. Most of the books I read are related to whatever I’m researching. Oddly, I find it more relaxing if I know that my reading is somehow related to my next book, even if tangentially. I’m now writing a book on family, so I just read Stalin’s Daughter by Rosemary Sullivan, about the daughter of the Soviet dictator and how she defected to America. What does it mean to respect your parents when your dad is a psychopath?”
ANY FAVORITES FROM YOUR RESEARCH OVER THE YEARS? “I love Sweet and Low by Rich Cohen. It’s about his family, which invented the saccharine sweetener. But—here’s the irony—they got into a bitter fight. There’s also A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, about how he hiked the Appalachian Trail (or part of it, anyway). An excellent combination of amazement and grumpiness. Also, I’m a big fan of the writer Jonathan Haidt. He writes about psychology. His book The Righteous Mind tries to explain why some of us become liberals and some conservatives, and whether we can ever have a civil discussion.”
IF YOU'RE ALWAYS WORKING, WHAT DOES "SUMMER READING" MEAN TO YOU? “Well, I recently wrote a piece about air conditioning, and read some air conditioning history books. So that seems appropriate summer reading. Might I recommend Cold Comfort [by Marsha E. Ackermann]? I learned, among other things, that Ben Franklin was an advocate of wet shirts to keep cool.”
David Shields ’78
BEST KNOWN FOR Both fiction and nonfiction, particularly the acclaimed Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season and Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.
DO YOU ENGAGE IN "BEACH READING"? “I probably sound a little professorial, but, to me, all reading is reading. It’s not as if somehow from June to August I’m suddenly reading thrillers.”
BUT ARE YOU READING WAR AND PEACE? “I just love wonderful books. Not always deadly serious books. I love works of blistering intelligence. Some of them are really funny, and some of them are really sad.”
WHAT WONDERFUL BOOKS CAN YOU RECOMMEND FOR THIS SUMMER? “I’m a huge fan of The Folded Clock, a recent book by Heidi Julavits. It’s about her life as a writer and professor and mother, and she’s married to Brown alumnus and writer Ben Marcus [’91 MFA], who has a cameo role in it. It’s highly entertaining, funny and snarky but also incredibly smart. And there’s a wonderful book by Nicholson Baker called Box of Matches. Every morning a guy gets up, lights a match, and thinks about his life and mortality. It’s a wonderfully entertaining book.”
WHAT'S ON YOUR OWN LIST FOR THE SEASON? “Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern. That would be a fun, smart book to read.”
Kevin Roose ’09
BEST KNOWN FOR His New York Times best-seller, Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits, and The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University.
WHAT'S YOUR SUMMER READING STYLE? “I have weird taste in beach reads. I don’t get much undisturbed reading time during the course of a normal week, so vacation is my chance to catch up. Generally, I lean toward historical biographies, current best-sellers, and famous old books I’d somehow neglected to read.”
LIKE WHAT? “On my last beach vacation, I read biographies of Alexander Hamilton and the Wright brothers, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, and Anna Karenina. A feel-good list, I know! Once in a while, I’ll throw in a lighter book for variety.”
Amy Sohn ’95
BEST KNOWN FOR New York Times best-seller Sex and the City: Kiss and Tell and novels Run Catch Kiss and Prospect Park West
IS BEACH READING A THING FOR YOU? “During the summer I go to Cape Cod for a few weeks to swim, and eat lobster and oysters every day. I try to catch up on new fiction and make myself smart by reading nonfiction. But my favorite kind of summer reading is 1970s hardcover fiction from the public library. It’s too hard to read hot new fiction from the library because there are usually 50 people ahead of me on reserve.”
WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THIS SUMMER? “I read everything Geoff Dyer writes, so I’m stoked for his travel essay collection, White Sands. As a feminist and someone who is appalled and amazed by modern-day dating rituals, I’m excited for Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating by Moira Weigel. And in new fiction I’m excited for Ramona Ausubel’s Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, since I vacation on Cape Cod and it’s about a family in Martha’s Vineyard.”
Megan McAndrew ’85
BEST KNOWN FOR Her second novel, Dreaming in French, which Kirkus Reviews dubbed “a real find” and Publishers Weekly called “a delectable treat.”
WHAT'S YOUR TAKE ON BEACH READING? “Is this going to be like that article in the Yale Alumni Magazine about the faculty’s guilty pleasures? Can you believe that not a single one mentioned Jackie Collins? No, it’s all Tolstoy and Maupassant and that Columbia professor [Carolyn Heilbrun] who used to write mysteries.”
YOU'RE NOT A TOLSTOY-ON-THE-BEACH TYPE? “In my youth, I lugged Proust up and down the Med. No French person reads Proust on vacation, so if you are planning to whip out Swann’s Way on a Corsican beach, know that you will instantly be outed as a Yank.”
WHAT ARE YOUR BEACH READS OF CHOICE AS A GROWNUP? “Nancy Mitford or Dodie Smith. You can’t beat Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love.”
SO, NOTHING TOO DENSE OR EDUCATIONAL? “Mitford’s The Water Beetle contains such gems as “Diary of a Visit to Russia 1954,” which talks about Soviet writers being carted off to a dacha in the summer and forced to write 2,000 words a day. A beach read should only be educational if it contains useful information about the writing habits of Soviet authors. Otherwise it should be about falling in love.”
David Ebershoff ’91
BEST KNOWN FOR His debut novel, The Danish Girl, adapted into the Oscar-winning 2015 film, and his third novel, The 19th Wife, a New York Times best-seller. Former executive editor at Random House.
ANYTHING SPECIAL FOR YOU ABOUT SUMMER READING? “As I started to answer this question, I found myself typing out clichés—the long novel, the escapist read, something to lose myself in. But the truth is, as much as I love summer (the hotter the better), I don’t redirect my reading for the season. I just read.”
SO WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO READ TO UNWIND? “It depends. I think of books as friends. Sometimes I’m in the mood to spend time with my quiet, contemplative friend. Sometimes my loud, outrageous friend. Sometime my friend who is always challenging me. Sometimes the friend who’s easy to be with.”
WHAT'S IN THIS SUMMER'S TO-BE-READ PILE? “Guapa by Saleem Haddad and The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien. And two books I edited: Behold the Dreamers, a novel by Imbolo Mbue, and Known and Strange Things, a collection of essays by Teju Cole.”
Jonathan Mooney ’00
BEST KNOWN FOR The Short Bus, about both his experience being labeled dyslexic and profoundly learning disabled and his tour of the United States interviewing other people considered “not normal.”
TELL US ABOUT YOUR BEACH READING THIS SUMMER “I’ll be trying not to get sand in the device—because of my dyslexia, a lot of my reading is audio.”
ANYTHING IN PARTICULAR ON YOUR LIST? “Unfortunately, getting back to some research books that I’ve been neglecting, and getting into the old-school literary canon. Like Ulysses. I have the same page turned down, and I quit every single time. I think everyone has that book with a ten-page radius of multiple folds.”
SO, YOU'RE BASICALLY JUST DOING HOMEWORK ALL SUMMER? “I’ve actually dived into a super cool young-adult series with my son. It’s a massive trilogy called Wildwood. It’s written by Colin Meloy, who’s the lead singer for the Decemberists, and it’s written in the literary equivalent of that very baroque style."
Photo credits, from the top: Via Alchetron (Moody); Emma Pratte (Hudes); Roy Gumpel (Wolitzer); Sue Kwon (Ricardo Phillips); Santiago Felipe (Bornstein); Karen Yamauchi (Eugenides); Sarah Landis (Acampora); Dylan Forsberg (Kleeman); Courtesy Scott Poulson Bryant; Connie Grosch (Myung-Ok Lee); Neil Giordano (Lowry); David Howells (Jacobs); Tom Collicott (Shields); Janine Cheng (Roose); Charles Miller (Sohn); Courtesy Megan McAndrew; Peter Ross (Ebershoff); Courtesy Jonathan Mooney