A Beach Read: Analyzing Summer Reading Choices
July 6, 2017
Whether you’re cruising down the California coastline or spending a weekend at the lake, summer is vacation season. We desire to trade the daily grind for days in the sun and have since summer breaks from school. You might even indulge in the nostalgia of teachers’ summer reading lists.
If you like to enjoy a novel while on vacation, you’re probably familiar with the term “beach read.”
There’s no set definition for this genre, but light, page-turning fiction likely comes to mind. While reading of any kind is always encouraged, critics have something to say about the pigeon-holing nature of beach reads.
However, just because that paperback you packed came from the “Beach Read” section doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer! At the end of the day, the most important benefit is that you enjoy what you’re reading.
Benefits of Reading Fiction in the Form of a “Beach Read”
Some novels might be meatier than others, but most beach reads are fiction. Reading fiction is incredibly beneficial to both body and mind. Psychologist Raymond Mar conducted several studies that support the idea that reading stories deepens empathy. Exposure to fiction helps us navigate complex social situations by giving us tools to understand what other people are thinking and feeling. When reading, we draw on personal experiences that resonate with the story and characters, which gives us insight into those interactions and outcomes.
One example of this process in action can be seen in a study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. Improved attitudes toward stigmatized groups, such as immigrants, refugees, and homosexuals, resulted when students read several passages from Harry Potter regarding the treatment of “mudbloods” and the protagonist’s (Harry’s) acceptance of them. Reading fiction allows us to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes by relating to the characters’ experiences. Even if your beach read isn’t a literary masterpiece, it still allows you to think like a different (fictional) person.
Better Body and Mind
Reading fiction also improves your vocabulary and increases creativity. A study conducted by Emory University showed that fiction readers experienced greater activity in the left temporal cortex, the part of the brain that plays an important role in understanding language, compared to non-readers. Enjoying a beach read story engages your imagination because you’re not sure what will happen next or how the story will end.
Finally, reading fiction reduces stress, which lowers your heart rate, eases tension, and helps you sleep better. How? Reading is a tool for disengagement from a stressful day. Have you gotten lost in the pages of a novel and felt a few hours passed like a few minutes? That meditative, trance-like state you enter when engrossed in a story calms your mind and gives your brain a break.
What Critics Say About the Use of the Term “Beach Read”
Considering the benefits of fiction, the foundation of a beach read, what do critics have to say against beach reads? Critics mostly find fault in the use of “beach read” as a marketing term. Some use the term to enforce sexist stereotypes that hold back female fiction writers and readers. Booksellers tend to fill a section marked “Beach Reads” with disposable romance books that are easy-to-read and sensational. They also tend to choose books written by women as beach reads. By doing this, booksellers pigeonhole beach reads and put a negative stigma on books written and read by women.
This negative stigma contributes to the double standard that made many early female authors (and even some current ones) take on a male pen name or moniker. As Cheryl Strayed mentions in her New York Times piece on the double standard for judging themes in fiction, “Writing by women is often interpreted as smaller, more particular and personal … while writing by men is often perceived to be broadly commenting upon social structures, institutions and experiences that are universally relevant and resonant to us all.” If the “beach read” were to comprise a greater range of literary fiction, or no longer be used as a marketing term at all, perhaps that double standard would lose ground.
Categories and Plotlines
Lastly, to make your search for the right novel easier, online and brick and mortar stores are categorizing books more narrowly. Therefore, the concept of the beach read threatens the variety of books as publishers search for novels that will fit perfectly in those parameters and sell well. Critics of the beach read are wary of a seasonal formula that defines plot lines and themes. Stories tend to repeat themselves, and readers get less out of reading them. Variation and stepping outside of your comfort zone are crucial to getting the dose of empathy and creativity that fiction has to offer. So, critics often see beach reads as trite or simple.
Read What You Want
When it comes down to it, though, reading something is better than not reading at all. If you’re more likely to read a saucy “who-done-it” by the pool than that 500-page historical novel, that’s okay! It’s your vacation, so you might as well reap the benefits of reading the way you see fit.
Happy (beach) reading!