Is there an unspoken rule that dictates that serious reading must cease at Memorial Day, to be recommenced again only with the retirement of summer whites in the first week of September?
The notion of the so-called beach read—really, at its finest, little more than a summer blockbuster between two covers—has always confounded me. Forget that only a lucky few still enjoy the kind of drawn-out European social-welfare-state vacation that allows for a refuge from the intrusions of the workaday world. But if our escapes from the office grow ever more brief, and if reading remains one of the enduring pleasures of vacation, shouldn't the books we haul to the beach be worthy of our time?
And so, hoping to avoid plodding through another dreary paperback with its predictable turns of climax and suspense, I've found four nonfiction books—from Roman history to the modern practice of fishing—that cover serious subjects without being overly serious about it. They're good reads; good enough for the beach and beyond.
Here's another misconception—along with "summer reading"—that has long bothered me: that the ancient world was somehow a centuries-long snooze, filled with Charlton Heston lookalikes given to excessive flights of pontification. I'm not sure how ancient and boring came to mean the same thing in the American imagination.
But as the esteemed classicist J.C. McKeown shows in his Cabinet of Roman Curiosities, the ancients were as passionate, opinionated, and curious as we are today—if not more so. Like us, they loved sex and craved status and both coveted and feared the world beyond their porous borders.
What McKeown has done here, quite simply, is organize his favorite quotations, facts, and illustrations from Roman history into subjects like law, children, and, of course, the dazzling varieties of ancient passion.
From the bricolage emerges an entertaining and sometimes disturbing vision of a society, beneath whose famously thorough organization lurked a profound undercurrent of superstitions, fears, and primal urges. Channeling no one quite like the sitcom malcontent Al Bundy, an official in 102 BC warns, "Citizens, if we could live without wives, we would all do without that trouble."
This is no comprehensive Gibbon-like history of Rome, but, rather, a madcap smorgasbord of the ancient world: a cure for baldness that involves mouse droppings, the great orator Cicero's relation to the chickpea, and the surprisingly lewd graffiti in Roman public restrooms, which might send a warm feeling through anyone who remembers the old Times Square.
As long as we're on the topic of misconceptions, can we retire the tired comparison of Romantic poets to '60s rock stars? Yes, both parties (at least the males) sported long hair, were indulgent in drink and other sybaritic pursuits, and practiced some version of free love. But what they preached was entirely different.
The likes of Mick Jagger reveled openly in their lifestyle, celebrating it unabashedly in songs like "Let's Spend the Night Together." But as Daisy Hay argues persuasively in her new Young Romantics, despite the earthly drama in which the Romantics were often embroiled, their eyes generally wandered toward the heavens. Of course they drank, cheated, and argued. But they could also compose poetry—like John Keats' Ode on a Nightingale—that showed the most tender of sensibilities, the sort of thing that by the coarse conclusion of the 20th century had long become too quaint for popular consumption.
Hay suggests, intriguingly, that Romanticism is predicated on a notion of friendship. "They loved each other and hated each other," she writes. "They were joined by shared ideals, but also by romance, sex and blood… The story of their tangled communal existence is, in many ways, as dramatic and as surprising as anything they ever wrote."
Their lives were rife with drama and given the combustible mix of egos and passions, those friendships, however dear, were bound to fray. Hay is at her finest in the treatment of the tragic Italian summer of 1822, when Percy Shelley drowned in a boating accident (tellingly, with the plays of the ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles in his pocket), and Lord Byron's daughter succumbed to typhus at his dreary villa.
By then, Keats had already languished and died in Rome, in 1821, beneath the long shadows of the Spanish Steps. Byron would die in 1824, fighting for Greece's freedom from the Ottoman Empire. Thus the circle of poets and friends was dissolving once and for all. One of its central members, Mary Shelley, would later remark, "Why am I doomed to live on seeing all expire before me?... At the age of 26 I am in the condition of an aged person—all my old friends are gone." Many a guitar-toting veteran of Woodstock has surely struggled through a similar lament.
But while in the hands of poets language can be sublime, it first arose for the most mundane purposes: warning that, say, a mountain lion was lurking in the grass or, more recently, posting weekend plans on Facebook.
In his light and amusing A Little Book of Language, David Crystal treats the world's 6,000 tongues—which are disappearing at an alarming rate—as a natural resource no less precious than our oceans and forests. "Half the languages of the world are likely to die out during this century," Crystal writes, though he also adds a hopeful note: "Saving a language is possible if the public cares enough."
It is easiest to love that which we know, and to demystify the workings of language Crystal offers readers a lighthearted tour of linguistics. He takes us from the brains of babies—"language acquisition devices," he calls them—trying to make sense of their own inchoate articulations, to the story of Harold Williams, a journalist who learned all 58 languages of the League of Nations.
Much like McKeown, Crystal leavens his erudition with amusing observation. He notes, for example, in his analysis of text messages, that only 20 percent of the words in a sampling of average texts were "textisms" like LOL—far less than most of us would expect. Ever the optimist, Crystal believes that languages need not meet the fate of the dodo bird. "I hope you'll care enough about languages to want to learn as many of them as possible." A smattering of high-school Spanish will simply not do.
Speaking of the English language, it is not unfair to say that it has rarely had as poor a custodian as George W. Bush, who once remarked, "I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully." As always, his pronouncement hid some deeper wisdom beneath its surface stupidity, especially in light of Paul Greenberg's Four Fish, which (unwittingly) acts as a qualified reinforcement of our beleaguered ex-president's words.
Much like Crystal's book, this is an act of preservation. Greenberg grew up with fish, first learning to sail along the coast of Connecticut. Later, when his peregrinations—Greenberg is a well-regarded travel writer—brought him back home to care for his dying mother, she suggested that he take up fishing again as relief from the grief she knew her death would bring. And so he did.
Fish frame not only Greenberg's history, but that of humanity, from our first forays into freshwaters (salmon), the holiday fish of the Mediterranean beloved by the Romans (branzino then, sea bass today), the rise of industrial fishing (cod, once plentiful along the continental shelf off the Eastern seaboard), and—as the appetite for sushi and the like has increased worldwide—forays into the "high seas" for the threatened tuna.
Greenberg avoids sentimentalizing the fish that he so clearly loves and knows so much about. Though he avoids eating whale in Norway, he later—against his own injunction—revels in tuna at an upscale New York restaurant. As he takes us through the history of fishing, from the industrializing farming of the 20th century to more recent attempts at localized operations that treat fish humanely, he advocates a most sensible approach: "Wild fish did not come into this world just to be our food... If we hunt them and eat them, we must hunt them with care and eat them with the fullness of our appreciation."
What makes this book so enjoyable is Greenberg's knowledge that the moral of his story—responsible eating—is best served wrapped in a well-told tale. At his best, he is a Michael Pollan of the high seas.
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Alexander Nazaryan is at work on his first novel and is on the editorial board of the New York Daily News.