On the sands, we reveal different sides of ourselves to the public--our physical attributes, our spiritual leanings, our intellectual interests--through the conscious revealing of our bodies and the unconscious display of our chosen books for summer reading.
It’s funny how much people enjoy reading at the beach. After all, the beach is a place where we’re supposed to relax, and reading--any kind of reading--takes effort. Even the fluffiest romance or thriller requires a considerable mental investment on our part. Without a concerted focus of the brain’s energies, that magic moment when we are no longer just staring at the surface of a page but pulled inside it would never happen.
In terms of the demands it places on the brain, immersing oneself in a good book is similar to the kind of work we expend in prayer or meditation. Reading actually is a form of meditation, as any Christian monk, Torah scholar, or Zen poet could tell you. To read is to shift the gears of one’s consciousness--to change the style in which we experience our bodies and minds, and even the most unassuming best seller accomplishes this shift for us to some degree. When we read, we undergo--to a greater or lesser extent depending on what we’re reading and how intently we’re reading it--a state of ecstasy. For as long as we’re “in” a good book, we are out of our ordinary, mundane, embodied state. We are here, but we are also, in a very real and consequential way, somewhere else.
Which is maybe why the beach, though on the surface such an unlikely place to read, is actually such a perfect one. When we step onto a beach, we become conscious of our bodies, attuned to questions of how they look and how they feel, that we’re largely spared addressing (at least in such an overwhelmingly direct way) during the non-beach months of the year. Are we fatter or thinner than the other bodies around us? Tanner or paler? More or less attractive? Are we too hot? Not hot enough? Hungry? Did we forget to bring a bottle of water? Should we have brought a chair? Even the least body-conscious person, placed on a beach, will find him or herself swamped almost instantly with these kinds of picayune concerns. It’s just the way the place works.