I saw everything from a MAD Magazine cartoon book to The Passion of the Western Mind, with Oprah and Michael Crichton in between. Oprah was represented by the biography by Kitty Kelley, and the Crichton was there via Next, which I have determined from the illustration, not from being able to read the title from my beach chair. Yes, I did scrutinize and eavesdrop. No, I did not intrude on people's reading, conversations, or family groups.
I saw more hardcovers than I expected to see, and one was a library book, right down at the water's edge. Egad! (My husband took a library book, too, but he left it back at the house when he was at the beach. It's still Last Call.)
One energetic girl swam and played the whole time, then, packing up, dropped her brand new clean hardcover with pristine dust jacket (as they say) on the sand. "Oops," she said, then quietly kept brushing it off with a corner of her towel, while keeping an eye on her dad, who never noticed.
I saw sudoku and crossword books, and many magazines. One woman studied an issue of Handyman for a long while, then turned to Star Magazine. A threesome brought a huge stack of magazines, with various titles, including Traveler.
I saw The Nine Rooms of Happiness, happily set aside by a mother when her young daughter wanted her to come dig in the sand with her. Digging in the sand at the beach has got to be the No. 1 room of happiness!
Overheard conversations included a reference to Nietzsche, a mock scolding--"You ought to be reading better literature than that, like what your husband is reading"--and, from the literary husband, "I'm going to meet this guy next week in Cincinnati at a book signing, not for this book, for another one. They're all short stories about himself...," and then, as if he sensed someone eavesdropping, he leaned over to whisper the rest into another man's ear. I have determined that this was a book by Tucker Max. Beach reading, indeed.
But I did have mini-conversations with a few individuals, including some family members and friends:
Kristi is reading Last Night in Twisted River "because John Irving is my favorite. It takes me a long time to get through books, though, because I read them in bed at night."
"Me, I stay up till one," said Maggie, who, in the summer, sleeps till noon. "I'm trying to read Othello." Maggie, a great reader, who, nonetheless, actually brought no books to the beach, has already read two things on her summer reading list: 1984 and Brave New World.
Judy is reading Blood Orange, by Drusilla Campbell, about an art historian (and Judy herself has a degree in art history) in a midlife crisis (don't know about that) who goes to Italy and then comes home to her husband and child, who goes missing.
Alex is reading Hannibal, by Thomas Harris, and reads Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett over and over in the summer, when he's not teaching.
My dad is reading Dance of the Happy Shades by Alice Munro, not because all the women in his family enjoy Alice Munro, but because he read and discussed her story "Boys and Girls," which is included in a Great Books Foundation anthology, and thought he'd like to read more.
Also brought to the beach, but already read by my mom, was Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, by Munro, which I have read and enjoyed, despite its awkward title. My mom was reading To Kill a Mockingbird, which she finished early in the week, moving on to Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro. "I can't believe this is written by a Japanese man," she said, then read a little about the author, and it made more sense, as he had moved to England as a child. She has the movie tie-in cover, and we had all seen the movie when it came out.
She was in the mood for To Kill a Mockingbird because of its 50th anniversary and because she hadn't read it for years, after teaching it to high schoolers for many. She had snapped up Remains of the Day and The Lovely Bones because there they were on the Select New Arrivals shelf by the door of Babbitt's when she was looking for 1) 1984 and Brave New World (which are always stored there and always hard to come by, as always popular) and 2) looking for beach reading. She's halfway through The Lovely Bones now, which my sister enjoyed (despite the difficult subject matter) for its sustained "realism" ("Realism?" asked my mom) in an imagined voice. None of us has seen the movie. I told them about Lucky, the author's memoir, and hearing about (and then reading) both books in an NPR interview, after having many college students recommend to me The Lovely Bones. I have not yet read The Almost Moon, Alice Sebold's second novel.
My sister Chris was reading Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell, because they did not have Cloud Atlas at the bookstore when she went, and she thought it would be good to read his first novel, anyway. She was loving it, all week, stopping to read sentences to me. She knew she was interested at the very first sentence, "Who was breathing on the nape of my neck?" Then she noticed that each new voice somehow used the phrase "nape of the neck" and soon she was hooked and admiring. I will "inherit" the book when she goes back to Ohio after her high school reunion, in our hometown.
And I was reading Barbara Pym! I read Excellent Women and then started re-reading Some Tame Gazelle, both about funny church women involved in the life of the vicarage. There's much more than that going on, including a kind of wry, subtle feminism that co-exists with the prevailing values of a culture that is sort of pre-feminism, but is therefore a quiet and radical feminism in which, by all appearances, women are happily subservient to men. But not really.
I also finished Level Green, a book of poems by Judith Vollmer, with a more "out there" feminist impulse, and Houdini Pie, a novel by Paul Michel, who is a wonderful storyteller. There is more to say about these, but I will say it 1) tomorrow and/or 2) elsewhere as 3) my hair is sandy.