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“Beach & Transportation” books

  I have a special tenderness for what I call “beach & transportation books”. By that, I mean the books you read on the beach, in waiting rooms, airports or trains. Not Richard Powers’s literature but either totally absorbing books or read-despite-distraction books.

The first category are the best and most dangerous ones : the best because they can change a 6 hours trip in a blur and the most dangerous because they can make you miss your plane or train stop by forgetting time and place. When I lived in Paris, how many times did I get up in a hurry, just in time to get out of the metro at my station? It’s a strange feeling, like you were on another planet or day-dreaming and something hits you conscience and makes you get up and jump out of the train. You end up on the platform, a little shocked, the time for your mind to keep up with your actions and thinking “I almost forgot to get out…again”

The second category includes the books you can read and at the same time hear the speaker call for you flight or be aware of the children playing in the sand near you. You still understand the story and miss nothing important but you’re not oblivious to your environment.

It quite hard to find good “beach and transportation” books. Crime and mysteries fit the description, obviously but sometimes the rhythm of the story does not erase the poor style. Some of them are written in “subject+verb+direct object” sentences, it sounds like it was written by a computer rather than by a human-being. Once, I received The Quickie by James Patterson, a thriller written in such a bad style it was painful, even in English, which is not my mother tongue. (It helps to read bad books in a foreign language, you’re not that finicky about the style).

Despite that example, it’s easier to find good crime and mysteries books for beach&transportation episodes than novels. An episode of Elizabeth George’s Linley and Barbara Havers is perfect : you just get caught by the story, and it’s never predictable.

As far as novels are concerned, it’s trickier to find some that combine both a good-enough style and a light subject that only requires a distracted mind, like the “San Francisco’s Chronicles” or some chick lit. I also like to read Philippe Djian’s novels for that. He’s a French author who weights his words (according to his interviews, you can be sure every word written was thought through) and writes stories as entertaining as good movies. I’m afraid no translation is available, except for “37°2 le matin” (“Betty Blue”).

It’s also the moment when you read what everybody reads : so you can exchange recognition looks with other passengers reading the same best-seller as you. It creates an additional bond between two co-travelers, I sometimes wish to ask these people what they think about the book, but I never dare. These books are travel companions, quickly read, quickly forgotten. They are often a mirror of their time, too rooted in the present to reach the universal touch required for books to become immortal. They are like a good movie you watch for entertainment only. They are read in situations where having too good a book would be a waste, for you would miss a lot of it, by lack of attention.

 To conclude, I don’t think these books should be despised as being some kind of under-literature, they don’t pretend to be more than entertaining. If literature were a river, where on one bank would stand the people who never open a book and on the other bank would stand the read-addicts, then “beach & transportation” books could be for some the bridge that will enable them to discover more difficult and more powerful reading.

Categories: About reading
  1. May 17, 2010 at 11:38 am

    Interesting post, particularly the distinction (which I recognise) between those books that cause one to miss one’s tube stop and those that we can read while remaining aware of the outer world.

    I tend to read pulp crime or sf when I want this sort of read, and I tend not to throw them away after (I only throw away books I’m sure I’ll never reread, unlikely to reread isn’t sufficient cause).

    Crime and SF work I think because good crime and SF is often still a very easy read. Good non-genre fiction tends to be more character or prose driven, and so require greater concentration in some regards (I don’t regard it as necessarily better, but it is different).

    Put another way, it’s easier to pick up plot and big ideas than subtle psychology or stylistic nuances when one’s otherwise distracted.

    And you’re quite right they shouldn’t be despised. A book can be well written to its purpose and yet not great literature. Not every book should be great literature. There’s no excuse for being badly written, but a book can have mass appeal and still be well crafted.

    I like your bridge analogy by the way, though I wonder how many cross that bridge from Patterson to more challenging fare.


  2. May 17, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    What is exactly “pulp crime” ? Can you give me an example ?

    I know what you mean about not throwing away books : I can’t do it either. It makes me think that I like the quote you chose about libraries in your last post on The Pendragon Legend : descriptions of such places in old English manors always made me envious. I’d love to have a huge room full of books, where I could wander and pick one book or another, spending time to find the next one I would read. Of course, it would have a ladder, to reach the highest shelves.

    About the bridge analogy, I maybe I’m optimistic but I know at least two people around me improving in their tastes after some time. I just think reading needs practice. My teacher says 6 years of piano lessons are required to hope to play Chopin. I think it the same for reading : you need to start with easy stuff to be able to read more challenging ones. When you’re not used to reading from infancy, these easy books are a way to start reading without giving up at once, because the language would be too complicated or descriptions too long.


  3. May 17, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    Most stuff here: http://www.hardcasecrime.com/

    There’s a review of the rather wonderful Somebody Owes Me Money over at mine. Pulp for me means fast moving and with a certain visceral quality. Fiction that’s not ashamed to be thought lowbrow.

    At risk of causing offence to any Spillane fans who may wander past, Mickey Spillane for me is pulp crime. Mike Hammer isn’t a nuanced psychological portrait, he’s a hard hitting hard drinking detective who leads with his fists. The books he features in are huge fun, though the level of violence sometimes crosses over to the ugly side.

    The bridge certainly does work sometimes. Besides, if someone likes Patterson, or Dan Brown, or whoever who am I to say they’re wrong? People know their own minds, if they move on to stuff I think more highly of that’s great but if they don’t then at least they have something to enjoy on the beach.


  4. May 18, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    I appreciate your tolerance and I share your view. Anyone can read Patterson or Guillaume Musso if they like, as long as they don’t fancy to give me their books for my birthday, because then I’m too polite not to read them !
    I clicked on the link in your comment and I now understand what pulp crime is. It’s what we call “roman noir” in French. I went through the names of the authors on hardcasecrime.com, but I’m afraid I know none of them, apart from AC Doyle and Stephen King. Do you like San Antonio ?
    Then I looked for your post on Somebody Owes Me Money and I loved it. I really like the quotes you chose, the funny way of describing situations and the self-mockery. I think I will read it. Thanks.
    It made me think of Philippe Djian’s style, which is not surprising as he is fond of that kind of books.
    It also reminded me of Romain Gary, (again, I know, I really think you may like his books.)
    He wrote – my translations, sorry-, describing someone
    “That’s the kind of smile a two-thousand years gorgorzola would have had, if it still had the strength to smile, instead of contenting itself with silent stinking” and about self-mockery
    “It goes without saying that this wish to create by myself a perfect world could lead me nowhere else than on the path of art”


  1. August 23, 2020 at 1:45 pm

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