The Beach Reading Model and the historical endurance of paper medium
It was two winters ago. I was on New York’s Long Island with my wife Sally visiting relatives over the Christmas/New Year’s holiday. Because of recent family moves and relocations we joined my brother Dan and his family at a rental property on Long Island’s south shore at Point Lookout. It is a lovely home, built during Long Islands elegant beach holiday heyday of the 1920’s
, located about 150 feet from the shore with a large veranda, private garden and scenic ocean views. There was just one problem: It was winter! To make matters more seasonable and festive, we arrived just as the largest snow storm of the season was starting which, when it ended, would deposit some 25 inches of the lovely white powder on the now quickly disappearing beach view.
With all the summer beach equipment; from beach balls to swim fins filling the closets (and looking very out of place in the snow storm) and dozens of sea shells and sea glass decorating the walls, tables and fireplace mantel reminding us what the real purpose of this fine old house was used for, it was a somewhat disorienting experience being so close to one of the most expensive beach front locations in New York and being confined indoors. With the growing strength of the storm and the snow, now blowing sideways, we might as well have been in Alaska for all the good this lovely home was doing for us.
Feeling like canary in a gilded cage, it was time to make the best of the three day imposed confinement. As a writer and publisher I always have an eye out for what people read when I visit the homes and offices of friends and acquaintances and this location was no different. As a new opportunity to see not only what the owners of the house read but those collected leave-behind books of years of summer rentals as well.
If this rental beach house can serve as a typical example of what people read during their summer holidays, it was instructive. As it is my feeling that beach reading, if I can established a new genre, is not typical for what a reader would read the rest of the year in their day to day reading choices. Beach reading, serves the same purpose as the beach house itself: a welcome respite from the imposed, required and necessary reading the rest of the year.
I spent the first day getting acquainted with my temporary imprisonment by walking through the house with its many bedrooms, spacious living room and enclosed porch looking at all the books, the majority of which were paperback and a few trade paperbacks, on shelves, bookcases, fireplace mantels, end tables and night stands to see what the renters preferred. The topic of choice was mainly romances. Romances of all sorts, from the many titles by Jackie Collins, to the classic “bodice rippers” and the occasional “spicy” selections. The condition of the books told me volumes too. Covers one and four were badly faded, all that harsh summer sun, folded, dog eared and, occasionally, missing. The body text of the books were in similar shape as the covers, with the occasional addition of beach sand in the gutters, water staining and the unmistakable scent of several low tides, one even had several strands of sea weed in it, presumably used as a book mark. Also in great quantities were magazines, mostly pulp fashion, gossip, Hollywood and weekly newsmagazines, the latter now so badly outdated (some by a decade), their value was more historical than informational. But my lasting impression was that the books were there, despite their ratty condition on the shelves, they existed, they were readable, their authors voices still spoke.
However, after my highly informal inventory, one aspect impressed me more than anything else and that was the age of a good portion of the reading matter. Several books had copyright dates from the 1950’s one was copyrighted in 1944 and three were first editions! That these books lasted through decades of summers; the afore mentioned harsh sun, they were read, picked up, put down, tossed onto beach blankets and into beach bags and onto the sandy beach itself add the embrace of the occasional incoming tide and you have the perfect testament to the survivability of printed entertainment. What the beach house contained in its reading matter was the accumulated personal interest of its rental and owner occupants over the many summer seasons. What was astonishing was the reading collection accumulated and was not depleted by the renters (and owners) over the years.
One of my theories of print media is that of historical endurance, of its ability to survive the rigors of its original ownership, its pass along ability to new readers and its physical persistence independent of supporting devices to maintain its authors message, hence its historical endurance. In light of these benefits of the physical print book, this begs the question of what the impact of the arrival of the new digital reading media means for literary endurance.
Questions arise such as, would the users of digital readers renting and visiting the house maintain the informal, and quite unintended, tradition of leaving behind their reading material, their readers, to share their reading selections with the follow-on renters? Would we now be denied the collective history of summer interest beach reading? Would the growing sales in digital readers now cause the collected books in summer rental houses to gradually disappear, their owners reluctant to part with their expensive devices? Though hardly an academic cause for alarm, might this highly unscientific survey of beach reading, in just one beach rental property, point to the future, however long or short, of this genre?
My view is unequivocal. The cost, maintenance and current fragility of digital readers will make them essential equipment to their owners, now that the newest generation of readers are multi-purpose devices that connect with the Internet and perform many other functions, and they will, or have, become indispensible and non-disposable.
My conclusion is the summer beach reading crowd will continue on as it has in the endless summers of the past, but its reading sources will change. I envision the creation of two parallel reading universes: traditional print and the growing digital. These will provide the reading format of choice for the reading public, including the summer beach readers, and it will be this choice (and possibly gadget fashion) that will drive much of the entertainment and information markets for the foreseeable future. Surfs up!
Ken is the author of Why Normandy Was Won: Operation Bagration and the War in the East 1941 – 1945 (2010) and The European Theater Anthology of World War II, to be released in May 2013, both published by Ostfront Publications, LLC.