Summer books: the psychology behind a perfect beach read

It’s an art and a science.
It’s an art and a science.
Image: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E
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I recently experienced the pure, immersive joy of finding a beach book perfectly suited for my vacation. At the beginning of four days on a secluded island, I dove into Leanne Shapton’s memoir, Swimming Studies, and rarely came up for air.

The book now sits on my shelf with sand between its pages. The memory of reading it is inextricable from the trip, as were its effects. The book wasn’t just pleasant to read; it changed my perspective on commitment, practice, athleticism, and creativity. I’m not sure it would have affected me the same way at home.

This makes perfect sense, experts say. Robin Rosenberg, a psychotherapist who coaches adults with ADHD in New York and the Bay Area, says vacation heightens our capacity to immerse ourselves in a good read. Quite simply, we’re more open to it.

“In our regular lives we’re all over-scheduled, and probably stressed,” says Rosenberg. In addition to that stress, Rosenberg refers to the heavy “cognitive load” we carry each day—the constant need to sort and weigh information in an overstimulated environment. ”When you’re sitting on a beach, the cognitive load is very low,” says Rosenberg. “You have time to wonder, to let your mind wander, to be really curious, to be introspective if you’re an introspective person.”

Vacation not only primes us for the pleasure of reading, it can also make the experience more beneficial. In particular, reading literary, character-driven stories can make us more open, empathic people after we go back to work, says Keith Oatley, a novelist and the author of a forthcoming paper on the psychology of fiction, to be published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences in July.

“Literary fiction is mainly about character,” says Oatley, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. “And so it enables us to get more involved with understanding other people.”

Layer on the calming monotony of crashing waves, and you’ve got literary magic. In an effort to make the most of this, I asked my colleagues at Quartz—among the most voracious readers and prolific travelers I know—for their all-time favorite beach reads.

True to Oatley’s findings, more than one said they experienced an openness on holiday that made certain types of books more enjoyable than usual. Thu-Huong Ha, who recommended Simone de Beauvoir’s The Woman Destroyed, explicitly said when she’s on vacation she’s more likely to accompany a narrator on what she described as a “personal journey.”

Nikhil Sonnad said he laughs more easily: “You give yourself over to comedy,” he said, and suggested Catch-22.

Here, some more recommendations from Quartz reporters and editors, to help you find your perfect beach read—whatever that means to you.

Character-driven literature

Stories that put you in the characters’ shoes and invite you to contemplate their actions and motives promote empathy, studies show—but they’re also just fun to read.

  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller “Post-apocalyptic…a man and his dog. Thrilling, philosophical, and uplifting in the end—like a sunnier version of The Road.”
  • NW by Zadie Smith “A nostalgic coming-of-age story set in London, littered with familiar cultural touchstones from a childhood in the 1980s and 1990s.”
  • You Shall Know our Velocity by Dave Eggers  ”One of the most moving things I’ve ever read…it deals with the reality of living with cancer, death of parents, and trying to figure out what you’re supposed to do with your life in a really succinct and human way.”

Plot-driven page-turners

These will keep you coming back for more, even if the waves are beckoning or the kids are screaming.

  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry “A big, sprawling Western classic…it’s an adventure and not overly taxing.”(The miniseries from the 1980s is still a classic, with a killer ensemble cast including Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Diane Lane, and Anjelica Huston.)
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan “Genius book that takes you all over the world, intertwining characters and experimental formats—there’s even a PowerPoint chapter. I’m jealous if you haven’t read this yet.”
  • A Secret History by Donna Tartt “Totally a page-turner. It traps you in the insularity and arrogance of a college nerd clique, but then things go very wrong…”

A strong sense of place

Some like to read fiction that’s set where they’re traveling. Others like to read it for escape.

  • Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks When he read this story about hitchhiking around Ireland with a refrigerator in tow, Quartz video journalist Jacob Templin was hitchhiking around Ireland (sans fridge).
  • The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño “This meandering story about bohemians having sex, talking about books, and drinking maté will make you want to become a bohemian, have sex, talk about books, and drink maté.” 
  • The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante “They hit you with the force of an ocean wave, make you drunk with jealousy and desire like the strongest [insert beach cocktail], drain you of everything you have like hours of sun.”

An actual beach

Beyond a strong sense of place, some beach reads get bonus points for actually taking place on a beach. These might also be useful if you’re landlocked and looking for vicarious escape.

  • The Beach by Alex Garland  “No-brainer ‘beach’ read, but still a fantastic story. Way better than the Leonardo Di Caprio movie.”
  • Annihilation By Jeff VanderMeer “It’s a novel that demands to be read outside, where you can hear birds and insects and listen to the wind…I’d call it a horror story about nature.” 
  • Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan ”The only hard part about reading this on the beach is feeling sad if you don’t know how to surf.”

Guilty pleasures

It’s vacation, after all.

  • My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult “Her characters are good and since the books are so long, you kind of lose yourself in them.”
  • The Corsican Caper by Peter Mayle “Mediterranean lifestyle porn draped over a wafer thin plot. You can follow this even if you’re day-drinking.”
  • Modern Lovers by Emma Straub “It’s totally pandering to Brooklyn bougie moms, and I’m loving it.”

Laugh out loud

Shedding those winter layers may free you up to laugh a little easier.

  • Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut “Hilarious read with biting commentary about people and the economy, also a look into the world a million years into the future.”
  • I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron “Her writing makes you feel like you’re not the only crazy person living in New York.”
  • Packing for Mars by Mary Roach “Non-fiction read about the weird world of space travel, but light-hearted and laugh-out-loud funny.”

Learn something

Managing editor Heather Landy said her recommendation, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne LaMott, was ”a good transition book for me at the start of vacation, when I wasn’t quite ready to dive into mindlessness.” The same can be said of a lot of non-fiction. And done right, truth can be more entertaining than fiction.