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.
Hard or easy, fat or thin, obscure or Oprah-approved, the beach book is a kind of covert spiritual tool: one that allows us, in a situation where we might seem to be in danger of becoming only bodies, to remember that we are, at all times, really dual beings: creatures possessed of material bodies, but possessed also of something decidedly more than that as well.
When conditions at the beach are just right--when the sand is warm but not hot, when the breeze is blowing just hard enough for us to feel it moving over our skin but not so hard that it chills us or scatters our stuff, when the voices of gulls and the distant shouts of playing children mix together just right with the sound of the waves breaking and sliding up the sand, we can fall so deeply into what we’re reading that we can forget all about the world around us, even while being thoroughly--and wonderfully--immersed in it as well.
A beach bather happily lost in a good book is a near-perfect example of the way the “spiritual” can enter the most seemingly mundane (and theoretically un-spiritual) places in our lives. Wherever we go and whatever we do, our dual identities as more-than-earthly beings is something we pack along with us--even at those times when we were quite sure we were leaving it at home.