The Paris Review Recommends Anti-Beach Reads


This Week’s Reading


This summer, we’re going long and hard. In anticipation of the solstice, the staff of The Paris Review has pulled together a list of anti-beach reads: doorstopper books, dense books, books that will tear a hole in your flimsy beach tote, flip over your canoe, and ground your propeller plane. You can’t hold them up to block the sun—you can barely hold them up at all. These are books that will empty the pool if they fall in. Books to swat a mosquito with and accidentally break a limb. Books worth the forty-euro heavy-baggage surcharge. Below is the final list, presented in order of page count, from fairly slim to downright menacing. Happy reading!



This week, I’ve been thinking about Anthony Wallace’s “The Old Priest,” which first appeared in The Republic of Letters, then in the 2013 Pushcart Prize anthology, then in an eponymous story collection, which won the 2013 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. One could argue that the story shouldn’t work: Twelve thousand words (which, while not of Tolstoyan proportions, is mighty long for a story). A cheeky and fairly unreliable second-person narrator. A forgetful clergyman (the old priest of the title) who tells the same stories to anyone who will listen (and several do repeat across the forty-some pages). Five decades of compression (many a story editor has told me that kind of breadth should be saved for novels). Significant use of email. In short, Tony broke all the rules, and to great effect: “The Old Priest” is a strange and beautiful gem of a story. The extended narrative zooms and loops, each pass around the sun (some of those passes spiraling backward) adding nuance and dimension to a double portrait. I’m trying to dodge the spoilers, but I’ll say the story’s “you” is less a POV and more a complicated character’s evasive self-identification; with that realization, that little three-letter word suddenly becomes a very astute character sketch. The old priest’s habit of repetition is cut by amazing moments of dialogue: The old priest sniffs at you’s efficiency apartment, “This is a house of failure.” You replies, “It’s experience.” The priest says, ”So is being bitten by a shark.” If you’re not convinced yet, there are psychedelics and a gorgeous sunrise swim (okay, perhaps it is a bit of a beach read). And, as the title suggests, there is the inevitable death. But what I’d forgotten until I reread Tony’s story last night was how you learns the news: “You go to check your email and there is death.” I stopped there, because I got that same email Tuesday morning, informing me Tony had died on May 16. I’d been lucky enough to publish his story “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” at The Southern Review and counted him as one of those far-flung friends that a far-flung journal editor makes: I always looked forward to his generous emails, the new stories submitted a few times a year, pithy updates on life from Boston. In April, my move to New York City imminent, we hatched plans for summer lobster rolls in Maine. I’m sorry to never have had that meal, but I’m glad to always have his stories. —Emily Nemens (44 pages)



When I imagine how C. S. Lewis passed his pre–Joy Davidman years, I picture bright summer afternoons spent holed up indoors, reading, thinking and writing. Whether this picture is accurate or not, one feels this sort of bookish separation was necessary for him to write the following in The Problem of Pain: “when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.” Twenty years later, his tone had shifted and this reverence for the sustaining power of God’s love had faded: “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.” The reason for this change was life experience: the above, from A Grief Observed, was written during the weeks that followed Davidman’s death, at forty-five, from cancer. Their love and brief marriage arrived late in life and caught the emotionally reserved Lewis by surprise: “Oh God, God, why did you take such trouble to force this creature out of its shell if it is now doomed to crawl back—to be sucked back—into it?” But God, Lewis was horrified to discover, does not answer such questions, asked at such times. In A Grief Observed, we have his violent, visceral response to the silence. Send the kids off to the pool and close the curtains to the sun. Let’s wait it out ’til winter. —Robin Jones (160 pages)



Sometimes, when I head out into the summer sunshine to enjoy a read in the park, I feel sticky, smell garbage, and get seven mosquito bites on each calf. When I long to go back inside, I remember another book waiting for me at home: William Wordsworth’s The Prelude. In Wordsworth’s thirteen-book autobiographical poem, the speaker recalls beautiful landscapes and sublime scenery. In memory, these natural objects “elevate the mind” in a way they did not during the initial sensory encounter. Nature is precious to the Romantic poet, but so is the act of picturing nature in one’s mind from a comfortable, mosquito-free, indoor location—arguably more so. So sometimes, I go home, revel in The Prelude, recall other moments when I have loved the outdoors, try to picture a big fog-tipped mountain, and willingly heed Wordsworth’s message:

what we have loved
Others will love; and we may teach them how,
Instruct them how the mind of Man becomes
A thousand times more beautiful than the earth
On which he dwells, above this Frame of things
(Which ’mid all revolutions in the hopes
And fears of Men doth still remain unchanged)
In beauty exalted, as it is itself
Of substance and of fabric more divine.

—Claire Benoit (272 pages, 8,000 lines)



There are books I love, and then there are books that have transformed me—gone through me like a blood transfusion and left me altered and renewed. I haven’t had a reading experience like The Transit of Venus by the Australian author Shirley Hazzard in years. It’s not a book you get lost in—it’s a book you encounter. It holds you at arms length and demands your full attention. And yet, for all that, it’s neither a long nor a particularly difficult read. First published in 1980, the first half reads more like a novel from the turn of the century—two young Australian sisters, one fair and one dark, are received in the upstairs rooms of an English estate. They encounter a serious young astronomer and a playboy playwright, none of these four go on to marry each other. Hazzard’s central preoccupation is love, or rather Love, but the novel spans decades, taking wars and politics and feminism in its sweep. “The tragedy is not that love doesn’t last. The tragedy is the love that lasts,” one character tells another, and by the time you get there, it breaks your heart. As the years pass, the characters remember small scenes from their youth—a glance, an aside, a porcelain plate—which were so briefly noted in the novel’s first half that it feels to the reader as if the character’s memories mingle with your own. In a Nabokovian sweep of mastery, the ending alters the entire story, revealing the “play within a play,” and chapter 3 and chapter 36 function as perfect parentheses to each other. And yet, as my mother likes to tell babies she encounters, You didn’t need to be so beautiful, I would have loved you anyway. That’s what I wanted to tell this book upon closing it. I loved it already for each sentence. Hazzard’s observations cut to the quick: “Tertia offered fingertips in a gesture not so much exhausted as reserving strength for something far more worthwhile.” Or, “She was one of those persons who will squeeze themselves into the same partition of a revolving door with you, on the pretext of causing less trouble.” Like Henry James but funnier (a high bar, I know), like Muriel Spark but with far more heart, Hazard is unlike anyone else I’ve read. Immediately upon finishing, I bought a second copy online. I couldn’t bear to part with mine and yet needed to press it into other people’s hands. Dear world, please reissue this book—the current cover doesn’t do it justice, and it needs to be in everyone’s fancy vacation photos. —Nadja Spiegelman (337 pages)




James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head is an incredible read. It’s an epic that tells the story of the Harlem-born gospel singer Arthur Montana. Told after his death by his brother Hall, it chronicles the emotional lives of everyone who touched Arthur during his lifetime, filtered through Baldwin’s own feelings on the matter. Reading Just Above My Head is like watching a character in a film do an impression of another character; the imperfections of the act are a reminder of the hidden skill of the actor. Baldwin is one of the most skilled writers we’ve ever had, in part because he prioritizes the writing of the work over the perfection of the fiction he creates. This not a novel to read anywhere you can’t sit down: Just Above My Head has required the most emotional work from me out of all the books I’ve read. But if you have the time (and the space in your backpack), it will reward you with the unshakeable feeling that you really have lived in the world of its characters and have come to understand something about yourself. —Eleanor Pritchett (592 pages) 



The other day, a book arrived to my home address called The Stranger Beside Me: The Shocking Inside Story of Serial Killer Ted Bundy. I had not ordered this book, and there was no name on the jarringly chipper Amazon gift receipt. I wondered who would send me such a thoughtful, threatening gift. My first guess was my friend Sarah, since I had just ordered her The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère. I texted Sarah, thanking her for the book, and didn’t think much else about it until later that day, when she texted back, “What book?” Okay, I thought. No big deal. So it wasn’t Sarah. I took a deep breath and tried my generous but also macabre and boundary-pushing friend Jake. Luckily, I guess, he texted me back, confirming that he was the sender: “I’ve had my eyes on you,” he wrote “do the Doodle.” The Doodle turned out to be a URL on the gift receipt that linked to a calendar. As I clicked the link, I discovered that this was not a totally free, no-strings-attached gift. In accepting it, I was consenting to join something called “The Serial Killer Book Club.” These types of books aren’t anti-beach reads—The Stranger Beside Me is a best seller—but the barrier of entry is as high, in its way, as a dense philosophical treatise or an obscure legal tome. In an already scary world, I’m not sure I need to spend 625 pages of my summer-reading time with Ted Bundy. But I’m also afraid of what will happen if I don’t play along with Jake’s sick game. In a way, this is just like every book club I’ve ever been in. It sounds like fun, but also, good God. Help! Brent Katz (625 pages)


I like big books—I cannot lie: War and PeaceLes MisérablesThe GreenlandersInfinite JestEurope Central, Gravity’s RainbowBlack Lamb and Grey Falcon. One I explicitly recall reading during the summer months is Astolphe de Custine’s Letters from Russia. Custine was a nineteenth-century travel writer (as well as a minor poet and novelist); Letters, his best-known book, was written over four years and was inspired by Tocqueville’s account of his American sojourn, which was published eight years before Custine’s Russian one. Composed in thirty-six letters, it reports on the Grand Duke, Russian courtiers, the marriage of Peter the Great, the Greek Orthodox religion, Napoleon, national dances, a steamboat accident, polar nights, the Russian character (natch), rural life, prisons, terrible roads, zakuska, Yaroslavl, peasants, the Academy of Painting, his own family history—in short, everything. Alexander Herzen was a fan, and so was George Kennan, who called Letters “the best guide to Russia ever published.” I was a Russia fanatic when I read it and soaked up Custine’s thorough study: it’s a record, not without prejudices, of a society and culture that preceded, and were largely effaced by, the Soviet Union (though despotism prevailed in both eras). In fact, the book was banned in Russia when it first appeared, and then again under Lenin. It’s fun to read because Letters is based on personal observations rather than facts and figures, on “impressions and emotions,” Anka Muhlstein writes in her introduction. If summer is typically about getting away from it all, then Letters is a good portal. “To travel,” Custine writes, “is to procure for my curiosity an inexhaustible aliment, to supply my thoughts with an eternal impulse of activity: to prevent my surveying the world would be like robbing a literary man of the key of his library.” —Nicole Rudick (672 pages)

Middlemarch is roughly seven hundred pages, approximately the size of a brick, but actually pretty lightweight, and remarkably lighthearted. Mary Ann Evans, known by her pen name George Eliot, confides in her reader many small gems of characterization as she sets her stage in a small provincial town. My own comparably provincial upbringing has perhaps allowed me a greater enjoyment of these nineteenth century portraits. It is almost impossible to imagine Dorothea Brooke’s foolishness going unchallenged today, her feeling of pious duty as a young daughter, that she might agreeably have no qualms with devoting her life to reading aloud to some poor-sighted husband. Her sister’s charm is dependent on the lost (or rejected) art that is nonconfrontation, “It had been her nature when a child never to quarrel with anyone—only to observe with wonder that they quarreled with her, and looked like turkey-cocks; whereupon she was ready to play at cat’s cradle with them whenever they recovered themselves.” There is something lovely and relieving about a world in which reservation of personal opinion is agreeable, if perhaps not effective or profitable to anyone involved. Of another character, Caleb Garth, Eliot writes: “He had a certain shame about his neighbors’ errors, and never spoke of them willingly … and he would rather do other men’s work than find fault with their doing.” I have not even touched on Will Ladislaw, and his willingness to approach the world without aim, for “among all forms of mistake, prophecy is the most gratuitous.” Having not yet reached the end of this delightful masterpiece, I take his chiding to heart, and sheepishly make no predictions. I will only say that sitting outside and slowly penetrating this book has given me more satisfaction than the sum of all my attempts at quick beach reads, forthwith abandoned like a beer unfinished and warmed by the sun. —Molly Livingston (736 pages)



Countless works of great literature are bleak, but Kolyma Stories belongs in its own category. Based on Varlam Shalamov’s fifteen years in the Soviet Gulags—including the period during which he was enslaved in the harsh gold mines of Kolyma—the tales collected here largely tell variations on the same story: someone in a camp suffers, waxes on the nature of humanity, and scrabbles for tiny pieces of bread and dried fruit. Something happens, or nothing happens. I feel weird even calling this a book. Each story works on its own as a smooth little stone of beauty, but Kolyma Stories is more of a project, a commitment on Shalamov’s part to paint the same square of canvas over and over (as the narrator of “Rain” says, “Everything had a monochrome harmony, a satanic harmony”), to document these horrors so as to ensure they never happen again. As such, the arcs of many of the stories are strange, inconclusive, and cruel. Characters introduced on the first page might have little to do with the events on the second. Everything feels stripped down and unpolished, as though Shalamov dumped the details directly from his brain and left them exactly as he remembered. Therein lies the appeal of Kolyma Stories: this brick of stories, many of them only a couple of pages long, is purer than any other fiction, and it never flinches from exhibiting the depths of evil. Death is unceremonious: in “At Night,” prisoners exhume a corpse to pilfer its clothing. (As they remove rocks from the grave, they see a big toe, “perfectly visible in the moonlight,” sticking out from the rubble.) But it’s not all gloom. We’re reminded time and again that a magic vibrates through the universe, a hum of wonder that stretches even to the farthest reaches of Russia. The intoxicating juice of frozen berries. The mysterious resilience of the dwarf pine. The warm presence of a stray dog. A woman waving to the prisoners in the rain, pointing to the sky, telling them it will all be over soon. And if you need a break from the swirl of misery and beauty, Kolyma Stories makes a great beach pillow. —Brian Ransom (741 pages)



When people tell me that they’re not “beach people,” they often cite sand as one of the main deterrents, and even as a firmly indoctrinated “beach person,” I get it—sand gets everywhere and stays there for days, weeks, months, possibly years depending on how often you shake out your brightly patterned sun umbrella and beach towel, only to find them crusty with geological build up. If you are such a person, I suggest to you an alternative: intergalactic (and fictional) sand. Dune, Frank Herbert’s 1965 science-fiction masterwork, is set on the desert planet Arrakis, which is home to an invaluable spice called melange; the central character, Paul, and his family have accepted stewardship of this planet, and with it, the dangers and complications of controlling the harvesting and distribution of melange. Dune clocks in at just under eight hundred pages and packs heft in breadth as well as depth, with interwoven themes of technology, ecology, politics, and religion, while also populating its universe with entirely new races and languages (there are two appendices and a glossary tucked in the back). What I find the most interesting in this amalgam is how Herbert uses his tome to treat concerns of environmental distress (it was published on the wave of attention paid to the fraught ecological practices of the sixties). Like most good science fiction, the fantastic and imaginative are used as tools for examining reality—and in this case, it became reality: names of planets in Herbert’s Dune universe are now nomenclature for geographic features on Saturn’s moon Titan. Also, if you want to continue blowing off your coastal-dwelling, beach-bum friends in favor of indoor activities, might I suggest David Lynch’s 1984 movie adaptation. I’ve personally never seen it, but most reviews concur that although it has its problems and failures, if you commit to being along for the ride, you’ll enjoy it thoroughly. The same could be said for the book, which has its drawbacks, but is so action-packed that it barely gives you a moment to stop and catch your breath, let alone think about how much fun everyone is having playing beach volleyball without you. —Lauren Kane (794 pages)


Infidelity is my favorite genre of literature, which is why it’s surprising that I hadn’t, until now, read Anna Karenina, the heftiest illicit love story of them all. I don’t enjoy reading in public, but in an effort to finish the novel at a clip, I brought it with me everywhere: subway, laundromat, doctor’s office. New York City, I soon learned, is full of awful people who know the ending to Anna Karenina and would enjoy nothing more than to spoil it for me. Friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike greeted me with oblique references to trains, or to train tracks, and I began to avoid them all. I ripped the cover off my paperback and finished the book in private, so that my encounters with Anna, like those of Vronsky, could remain an open secret. —Maya Binyam (976 pages)

I don’t remember how old I was when I read A Suitable Boy, but I remember everything else about it: the hot density of an English-literature department meeting going nowhere, the thrilling relief of old friends and lovers alone with their hands on each other for the first time in months. The enormity of Vikram Seth’s novel throws people off, but I’m not sure why. The story, primarily about two families in post-partition India, moves quickly with a variety of intrigues. My heart has still not recovered from when Lata first falls for Kabir: “Suddenly Kabir leaned his head back and burst out laughing. He looked so handsome in the more sunlight and his laughter was so open-hearted and free from tension that Lata, who had been about to turn towards the library, found herself continuing to follow him.” Looking for that quote yesterday I worried for a moment that I had conjured it myself. But there it was, simple and evocative. I have read much shorter books about which I remember nothing. When I first read this one I was young enough that I was living at my parent’s old house, and no one I loved had yet died. My grandmother was still alive, and when she called several minutes after I had finished the last of the novel’s 1349 pages, I was still crying over the suitableness of the boy. —Julia Berick (1,349 pages)