Books mark periods of time. Dracula was winter 2007. The Leopard was summer 2016. I can dog-ear moments in my life by the books I was reading. In a lot of ways disposable books cheat you of this makeshift carbon-dating system. You bought them for 50 cents from a bin or for $30 at Hudson News. And finally you not-so-accidentally forget them at the place you stayed or in the seat-back compartment. It’s the kind of guilty pleasure that doesn’t really give you all that much actual pleasure.
So, now it is August. The city has become a sweltering mess; the sidewalks smell like trash and the humid air itself sticks to your skin like sweat. Your lone comfort is the thought of burning through the rest of your vacation days on the beach. Here are a few books that you can take with you, that you can pick up and put down midparagraph when someone calls your name, ones you can finish in a day but still leave you longing for more, ones with stunning clear prose that mimic the foggy pace of your brain after a day in the salty heat. But these are titles, if you’ve never read them, that might one day remind you of that hot summer back in 2018.
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
Jong is a pioneer in the field of verve. Every sentence of her 1973 novel, Fear of Flying, is like a rapid-fire wallop of irony and insight—the kind of undressing and ingenuity you almost never see in modern American fiction. And these aren’t cheesy insights woven into bromides about the human condition. No, these insights are methodical and painstaking. They strip down each of the protagonist’s thoughts as she wonders who she is and what exactly her place in the world is.
Isadora is a young journalist who abruptly realizes that all of her impulses and desires and obligations have become muddled and mixed up—that she is a casualty in the tug of war between herself and the men she loves. Everything is psychoanalyzed without becoming heavy handed or didactic. Even when sex is described in detail it isn’t pornographic, but rather, also fodder for analysis.
Not infrequently does this book touch on ideas and moments that are hard to stomach, but Jong’s incredibly intimate style lightens their load without ever declawing them. It’s almost as if things are taken seriously by virtue of being taken lightly. This allows Jong to make powerful statements with a light touch. Herein lies a huge part of this book’s charm.
Keeping up a voice so dynamic over 400 pages is like bloodsport, an endurance test, and is rarely well executed. But this book is a master class in how to write with style. More than 40 years later it remains a classic of modern American literature.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
This book wears beach-read camouflage. It has almost all the characteristics: an easy story and a nostalgic narrator, flashbacks to a simpler time, syrupy prose that is somehow clear even when it rambles on a bit. A lightness of touch. You can picture yourself reading it aloud to someone on a hammock. But it’s all a trap. Brideshead Revisited is actually one of the most sophisticated English books written since WWII.
If it’s almost impossible to produce any meaningful spoilers about Brideshead Revisited it’s because even under the pretext of plot (which unfolds over many years), it’s a book about nothing. Somewhere in this story of romance and friendship and the English countryside is a much deeper, more compelling story about yearning, and specifically in that a subdued, English fashion. In each paragraph you can sense the intimacy of human touch. It’s a story whose most thrilling moments are about the quiet understanding that exists between two people who can say more to one another in silence than most people can say in an hour of conversation. Long, drawn out syllables, idyllic descriptions that would make John Keats shiver. Latin phrases spoken like coded incantations between former boarding school boys. Which is all to say, it’s widely acknowledged to be a gay love story even though nothing explicit ever really happens between the two friends. It’s easy to confuse English restraint for repression. In reality, however, this kind of restraint in craft is so precise and so focused that the product is overwhelmingly sensual. Reading this book makes you feel the kind of ache that belongs only to dreams. You feel suspended in the gray, dewy air of an English country morning.
In the 1980s, Jeremy Irons starred in a much-loved adaptation of the novel, which became famous in large part due to Irons’ narration. Although so much of it is owed to the timbre and inflection of his voice, it also highlights just how masterful Waugh’s prose really was. You can listen to recordings of Irons reading again and again just as easily as you can read this book every summer.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Although known primarily for its film adaptation starring Matt Damon and Jude Law, Highsmith’s novel blends two of the most iconic genres in the beach-read form: the windswept Riviera story and the murder thriller.
The 1955 novel starts out almost like a traditional noir: Ripley, a down-and-out schemer, meets a wealthy tycoon who presents him with the opportunity of a lifetime. Ripley must travel to Italy and convince the tycoon’s playboy heir to stop burning through his inheritance and instead return to America. What begins as a story about fast friendship in Italy between two men (and could just as easily have turned into a beachy romance) takes a dark turn. Ripley develops a dangerous crush on his mark—the wealthy and charming Dickie—who does not share Ripley’s feelings and soon becomes annoyed by him. Ripley, determined to possess Dickie by whatever means necessary, sheds his Nick Carraway affectation and reveals his true nature of sinister conman.
One of the most interesting things about The Talented Mr. Ripley—a book about an outsider trying and failing to ingratiate himself to the wealthy American jetsetter crowd—is that Highsmith, a noted anti-Semite, wrote it at a time when many Jews were still barred from certain rungs of American society. A part of me suspects that Ripley was quietly intended to be a Jew—a conman who had stolen a spot among the wealthy by pretending to be someone else. And there he was all along, right beneath Dickie’s nose. Dangerous, pernicious Ripley. Ripley who wore a mask. Ripley who was prepared to stoop to levels that no normal person would.
Read Alexander Aciman’s Bookworm column in Tablet magazine on Mondays.