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Packing for the beach

With a week of vacation from the paragraph factory stretching ahead, an urgent planning question moves to the fore: what books to take to the beach.*

I’ve just finished The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly, a murder mystery with a quite satisfactory and accurate portrayal of a newspaper in decline. Another along that line would be good.

Also in hand are John McWhorter’s What Language Is and James W. Pennebaker’s The Secret Life of Pronouns, sent by publishers for review.

It might be a good time to revisit a favorite, the way I reread Barchester Towers every few years to revel in Trollope’s best work. I went back to Northanger Abbey during last winter’s trip to England, rediscovering how sly Austen is. Waugh’s Scoop? A Barbara Pym? Anne Tyler’s Accidental Tourist? It’s decades since I read Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter. Difficult choices.

A Book of Good Intentions, brought along because one ought to read it but left resolutely untouched the entire span, is requisite. Henry James should fit nicely.

Something in biography and history, something with a little meat on it, would be good. The last time we went to Ocean City, I was in Ved Mehta’s memoir of working with William Shawn at The New Yorker, an unwitting demonstration of the limitations of hero worship. I’ll need to check the library to see what’s out.

You may be muttering among yourselves that even for his appetite for books, that’s more than he can get through in a week. Quite right, and I intend to spend some time walking on the beach and might even go into the water up to my shins (taking care always to preserve my pallor).

The point is that you should always have a reserve of unread books at hand, your ever-normal granary, your stock of acorns set aside for the winter. Provide, provide!


*I hesitate even to get on an elevator without a book in hand.


Posted by John McIntyre at 12:34 PM | | Comments (21)


You've probably read it, but I recommend Kay Fox's "Watching the English."

I have my iPhone's Kindle app well stocked with good intentions. I'm nearly a third through de Tocqueville and I look at it only when I'm waiting for appointments or rides.

Not so far gone as to take it out for elevators, though.

Mark Richard's "House of Prayer No. 2" is a terrific and quick read, the embodiment of pith, and flat out tremendous writing.

You've read The Imperfectionists? About a struggling newspaper, set in Rome. I confess it didn't grab me, but several of my friends loved it, so I'll pass it along from them.

"I’ve just finished The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly, a murder mystery with a quite satisfactory and accurate portrayal of a newspaper in decline. Another along that line would be good."

It's not a murder mystery, but I suspect you might enjoy "The Imperfectionists" by Tom Rachman, if you haven't already read it.

Jan Burke has a series with married protagonists, husband a police detective, wife a newspaper reporter. Over the course of the series we see her mature as a reporter, first under the tutelage of an old codger copy editor, then on from there. In the latest installment, the closure of the paper and its loss as a watchdog for the community is a central issue.

Also a long standing fan of Connelly (and John Sandford too is yet another newspapering alum)... but your phrase "something in biography and history" immediately drew Bernard Cornwell to mind and the first two books in his "Saxon" series. As well researched as Michener but not assembled as tomes.

The rest of his stuff is fairly criticized as "Barbara Cartland with weapons".

Enjoy the week off.

Excellent suggestion (although it's Kate, not Kay). But a lovely book.

I never, ever go anywhere without a book, a magazine, or my Kindle or iPad... there must be reading material to hand. I even have an Audible account for the car: the radio is ludicrous these days.

Oh... meant to say... enjoy your vacation!

I edited Michael Connelly's copy when he was a reporter at a newspaper that we didn't know would decline so fast. I won't name the chain.

Fiction tends to interest me more when I know or at least sense that the author did his research.

A pleasure of having more books than can be read while on vacation is that you can look forward to something beyond unpacking when your return home.

Enjoy leisurely reading and, if the spirit strikes, a traipse into the shallow surf.

There are many reasons for reading Patrick O'Brian's "Master and Commander" series (a sneakier wit than Jane Austen, the best characterisation I know of, profound historical knowledge) but not the least is that there are so many volumes that you don't need to read anything else. I just finish them and start again.

I'm so glad you know Barbara Pym! I have read everything she ever wrote, and seeing that others appreciate her is a "suitable" way to start the week.

I reread Northanger Abbey recently also, and had the same reaction: I knew she was funny, but man, she made me laugh out loud over and over.

For no particular reason, Wilkie Collins. The Woman in White, because I've been wanting to reread it myself, or something else.

Oh, I know another vintage suggestion: The Four Feathers. Totally colonialist, thoroughly absurd in its High Victorian Honor Code, laughably romantic, and perfect escapism. I can't imagine a better beach book. Makes me want to plan a vacation just to reread it.

You're too smart to ask for advice on which books not to read. The list would be longer than the ocean is wide. Still one cannot say too often, "Never read 'Dutch.'" One of my regrets is that I did.

I remember Steinbeck's "The Winter of Our Discontent" as so suffused with light that it seems like a perfect late summer read.

If you don't pick it up, perhaps I will once again.

Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko series goes from Brezhnev's Soviet Union to the current Putin-overseen chaos in Russia. Terrific research. (Or so it seems; I actually don't know ANYTHING about the former Soviet Union.) Smith, a/k/a Bill Smith, supposedly used to be a copy editor at the Philadelphia Daily News.
My faves I think are "Havana Bay" and "Wolves Eat Dogs." And "Gorky Park," of course.

Maybe this is already factored into your plans:
Heller's "Catch-22" is 50 years old this month. I for one am rereading it. Amazing how he plays with language. I think you'd like to hear the way Yossarian censors letters: sometimes he leaves out all the modifiers.

One can never go wrong re-reading TH.H. White's The Once and Future King.

John: Perhaps the best book I have found in the past 10 years is Religion and the Decline of Magic, about popular beliefs in 16th and 17th century England. It's by Keith Thomas. I gave it to my brother several years ago and he's kept it on his nightstand ever since, as it's one of those books you can just dip into at random and find fascinating stuff.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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