The interpretation of beaches
I do not think beaches are a good place to read books. The combination of salt, water and sand are bad for the books in question, worse for a Kindle or an iPad. The sun is bright and hurts the eyes and the act of shading them from its glare with the book is distracting from the book itself. Sun loungers do not support the back enough in any but the least comfortable and most stupid looking positions to be at all workable.
What beaches are really for is sand castles and waves and rock-pools – themselves all genres of their own kind of novel, constantly reworked, shifting, reinterpreted by the passage of time, constructed as much by the people that inhabit the beach as a novel is by the minds that read it playing out the words of the book. Do not go to the beach in search of books, and do not take books to the beach either if you can avoid it. The spirit of the beach and the tales it tells are more open, more wounded, more sapping than those of the novel – more lavish, more ancient.
A cliff is a richer source of narrative than a book, so is sand and so is that old, white tufted woman, the sea. The beach is made up of nothing except stories: how the layers of landscape came to place themselves where they did, the end of traces of animals fossilised into eternity – their bodies impressions only like the names of the great name-stayers of history, preserved in all but their true form, Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Herodotus – and perhaps more important that which was not preserved. Who knows what it was to take dinner with those men, or to shake their hands: the warmth or coarseness of their grip, the true colour of their cheeks, the smell of their armpits, the shape of their feet. Who knows those things in the living, extra-sensory way that we know everything about someone when we meet them by instinct; things we later cannot describe, things we wish we did not know. Though great men of literature might be preserved as fossils it is only ever in the igneous rock of volcano-man which is paper and which in man’s perverse playground game – paper, scissors, stone – somehow trumps the stone. Who knows what it would have been to see or to hold any of the shapes preserved in cliffs. Certainly not he who does not read the cliff with his mind’s eyes open.
Beaches are not good places to read books. The reading mind if it is a true reader does not need paper and ink and words but will read anything and everything it passes with a critical and practical gaze, dissecting its narrative and characters to form an extrapolated view: it will read the paving stones in the street, the walls of a house, the flickering lamplight of a quiet street at night, it will read the words which have not been written and note them and above all it will be curious, it will be critical. What it does with this knowledge – if it chooses to write it or not – is that mind’s own choice. Nonetheless, the lesson of beaches is that great writers must first be great readers since writing is nothing but reading the world aloud for others.