LABOR DAY WEEKEND:
LAST CALL–THE BEACH & A GOOD READ
A Beached Wail—No Time for That Pile of Books
by Danny Heitman
Hang around literary culture long enough, and you’ll learn about writers colonies—groups of tree-shaded cottages in some pastoral locale, supported by a generous benefactor in which a poet, playwright, novelist can complete his work without the distractions of the outside world.
The premise here is that writing well benefits a lot from peace and quiet. But reading also depends a great deal on long stretches of time unbroken by phone calls, text messages and trips to the grocery store. Which if we want to keep and even increase the audience for the written word, we should probably think about building a few readers colonies, too.
All of this comes to mind with the arrival of another Labor Day weekend, marking the unofficial close of a summer reading season in which very few of us read as much as we thought we would. That’s despite a vacation calendar heavily promoted by the publishing industry as the perfect time to enjoy books at the beach.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh pointed out the problem many years ago. Lindbergh, who frequented the shores of Florida and was something of an expert on the peculiar blessings and complications of coastal living, debunked the beach as a book-lover’s paradise. “The Beach is not the place to work; to read, write or think,” Lindbergh told readers back in 1955, perhaps capitalizing “beach” to underscore its place in our national mythology. “Too warm, too damp, too soft for any real mental discipline or sharp flights of spirit. One never learns. Hopefully, one carries down the faded straw bag, lumpy with books…. The books remain unread . . .”
The passage comes from the opening of Lindbergh’s “Gift from the Sea,” a slender volume that I carried to the beach this summer and did, despite the mental corruptions of sand and surf to which she alluded, manage to finish. I had thrown “Gift from the Sea” in my suitcase because of its brevity, knowing from experience that we must often manage to read despite vacation settings, not because of them.
That’s also why I pitched Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s bite-size memoir, “Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming,” into my tote bag as I flip-flopped down to a chaise near the Gulf of Mexico. Along with her gift for memorable book titles, Ms. Johnson has a commendable knack for writing stuff brief enough to be savored in a sitting or two.
Other, more physically substantial titles on my summer book list lie on my nightstand still unread, including historian Geoffrey C. Ward’s account of his swindler ancestor, “A Disposition to Be Rich”; Bettany Hughes’s study of Socrates, “The Hemlock Cup”; and film critic Roger Ebert’s memoir, “Life Itself.”
Meanwhile, Robert A. Caro’s 712-page “The Passage of Power,” the latest installment of his LBJ biography, has been circling my summer days like Ahab’s whale, teasing me to conquer it before the season ends.
If we want to encourage reading, so long lamented as on the decline, then clearly we’re going to need something more than summer vacations to sustain an active audience for people of letters. Which makes me hope that somewhere, a wealthy philanthropist like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett is listening.
For this well-meaning donor intent on public good, I have a modest proposal: From coast to coast, endow America with readers colonies where earnest bibliophiles can apply for fellowships that offer retreats to rustic cabins for a week or two with their favorite authors.
There, with nothing to compete for my attention except an occasional wind through tall pines, I just might be able to finish “The Passage of Power” before Christmas.
Mr. Heitman, a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House” (LSU Press, 2008).
[from THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, August 31, 2012]