Overlooked Summer Beach Reads
They're predicting a couple days of nice weather—in a row! Grab your sunscreen and toss one of these titles in your beach bag.
by Dex Yellow Pages
Page count: 632
The bang was so loud I nearly crapped my pants. More than a foot thick and tucked in a bag destined to live forever in a landfill, our new Dex phone books—all three of them!—landed on our porch shortly before dawn on a sunny summer morning.
Along with our new yellow pages and white pages, we also got a copy of Dex Plus, a smaller, more compact yellow pages. "Convenient & Portable," reads the copy on the cover, perfect for our "vacation home." We don't own a vacation home, sadly, but we were heading to the beach for a week when our new phone books arrived, so I tucked Dex Plus into my bag.
It had been ages since I cracked open a phone book. Why would anyone use a phone book when Google can locate any number you need in .28 seconds or less? I may be the first person ever to read a phone book for pleasure. (The first person without autism, anyway.) My beach reads tend toward vaguely trashy biographies of European royals, like Eleanor Herman's Sex with the Queen. (Read it, loved it.) But there was something seductive about Dex Plus.
Dex Plus has some pretty maps at the beginning, and its community pages include colorful seating charts for Safeco Field, KeyArena, Qwest Field, and Husky Stadium. In the directory proper, there are significant omissions—Dale Chihuly isn't listed under "Glass Blowers," and I couldn't find the local chapter of Fist Fuckers of America listed under "Fraternal Organizations"—and some red meat for conservatives. If you're an anti-immigrant Republican conservative who longs to see white people working again as gardeners, house painters, roofers, and home health-care workers, the photos in the ads in Dex Plus will show you a vanished America.
But what I most enjoyed about Dex Plus were the pages—pages and pages—of escort ads. College Girls, Seattle Hotties, Airline Escorts ("Specializing in Sea-Tac Airport & Surrounding Areas!") made me feel a lot better about the place I work. If escort ads are appropriate for a publication that every parent in the Puget Sound area keeps in his or her home, then they're appropriate for a free weekly newspaper intended for adults. DAN SAVAGE
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
by William L. Shirer
(Simon & Schuster) $25
Page count: 1,249
The definitive history of Germany's Nazi era, written by William Shirer, a CBS reporter who lived in Berlin for most of Hitler's reign of terror, vividly describes a terrifying world in which sadists and illiterates had total control; in which ordinary Germans looked the other way while German traditions, culture, and human rights were systematically dismantled; and which, ultimately, crumpled under the weight of its egomaniacal leader's own fanaticism. First published in 1960, Rise and Fall lacks the emotional and historical distance of later books about Hitler and the Third Reich; but its shortfalls (a Christian distaste for the homosexuality, a somewhat dismissive view of women) are more than made up for by its unprecedented sweep and textural richness. Vivid descriptions and reportorial details make the pages—more than a thousand—fly by. ERICA C. BARNETT
Within a Budding Grove
by Marcel Proust
(Modern Library) $14.95
Page count: 784
The second section of the second volume of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu is a fabulous beach read—sunny, summery, and oh so French. Cheekily entitled "Place-Names: The Place," this section is set on the seashore, in the trendy 19th-century resort town of Balbec, with its Grand Hotel, its golf courses and tennis courts, and a surrounding countryside littered with charming churches of architectural interest. Our narrator (young, infirm, romantic) is preoccupied with a posse of flirtatious teenage girls, at the center of which preens Albertine, with her famously wandering beauty spot and endless sass.
Of course, the winner of the 1919 Prix Goncourt is also a meticulous investigation of the social and political moment of Belle Epoque France, with its official disgust and secret worship for the displaced aristocracy. Proust goes into palsied throes of etiquette as regards the appropriate dinner hour for the bourgeois Parisian family and the proper mode of address and decor for a former courtesan turned respectable salonnière. The modern reader will tiptoe through difficult-to-parse discussions of anti-Semitism, wade through page-long sentences, and relive the hormonal haze of adolescence in exquisite, agonizing detail.
It is, nonetheless, indubitably, set on a beach. ANNIE WAGNER
Science of Logic
by G. W. F. Hegel
Translated by A. V. Miller
(Humanity Books) $45
Page count: 844
Hegel's Science of Logic is the kind of book that gets you thinking about things. Though a little long, it's not really that hard to understand. What it wants to make clear to you is the logic of the categories that make the world, as well as experience, possible. The only thing you need to know before reading the big book is this: Hegel's categories are very much like Kant's categories. If you know what Kant means by categories, then you will know what Hegel means. There is, however, one important distinction. Kant's categories make only human experience possible; Hegel's, on the other hand, make the whole world possible. This means, Kant's categories are not ontological; Hegel's are ontological. Kant's categories are not ontological because they are transcendental. And the transcendental logic of human experience is that before experience can happen, the categories must be there first and always. Kant moves from transcendental aesthetic to transcendental logic and finally to transcendental dialectic. Now, where transcendental dialect ends is where Hegel's logic begins. And he begins with being, which is one of the categories—the conceptual structures that are not only the world-as-known-by-us (phenomena) but also Ding-an-sich (noumena). And that's basically it! If you know the meaning of Kant's categories and the limits of his transcendental dialectic, Hegel's Science of Logic is a piece of cake. CHARLES MUDEDE
Democracy in America
by Alexis de Tocqueville
(University of Chicago) $22
Page count: 722
Who needs a summer fling when you can have two sordid volumes—93 chapters total—packed with descriptions of the one-night stands of the most virile French aristocrat to ever mount an American milkmaid? The author of Memoir on Pauperism and The Old Regime and the Revolution is at his most potent in this 1835 bodice-ripper about his jaunt across the Nubile States of America. The pleasures of breezing through Democracy in America are many. Our Mutton-Chopped Monsieur is dispatched, at the tender age of 27, to study the American prison system. (Hot.) He gets more than he bargains for. Fueled by Gallic wiles, an out-of-control libido, and more Château Margaux than you can imagine, Tocqueville works his slatternly charm across the new nation (not to mention a Girls Gone Wild weekend in Tijuana). Keeping things outrageous is a cast of supporting characters that includes a coke-addled drag queen and a burro named Philippe. But this arousing memoir isn't all tits and libertines. Along the way, Tocqueville and his motley crew learn about America—the chapter "How the Enlightenment, the Habits, and the Practical Experience of the Americans Contribute to the Success of Democratic Institutions" will coax a heartfelt tear from the most jaded eye—and they learn something (spoiler alert!) about themselves. BRENDAN KILEY
by Honoré de Balzac
(Penguin Classics) $16
Page count: 721
"Literature breeds publishers!" "And journalists!" decry two of the beautifully illusioned writers in Balzac's Lost Illusions, a 699-page novel followed by 22 pages of notes. For these two main characters—Lucien Chardon, who dreams of being a poet, and his closest friend David Séchard, a provincial printer and aspiring inventor—writing and publishing breeds nothing but humiliation, of the extremely protracted sort, the sort that everyone else can see approaching and that many wait for, mouths watering.
But this novel is not just about publishing. It's also about banking. The friends endure twin fates, each one compromised by his ambitions, bespeaking a mad ambivalence on Balzac's part vis-à-vis the 19th century. He sends Lucien into Paris to make his fame, only to deliver him into hackery, bankruptcy, and a Faustian bargain. While the writer Lucien is steadily eroded in the first half of the book, the publisher David toils toward his ruin in the second. David's invention is stolen from him in an elaborate, assiduously detailed series of complicated legal and banking schemes set in motion by Lucien's expensive misfortunes in Paris. The differences between the banking laws in Paris and the banking laws in the provinces are helpfully enumerated.
One of the crown jewels in Balzac's 92-novel oeuvre La Comédie Humaine, Lost Illusions is satire, not tragedy, but this being Balzac, it's also a revelation about the ways that people casually abuse each other. The men survive; their dreams don't. The book took Balzac six years to write and it took me a year to read. I can think of no better way to spend a year on the beach. JEN GRAVES