Into the woods: a different take on beach reads

When I was growing up, “going on vacation” was synonymous with “going to the beach.” Every summer, my parents loaded me and my brothers in our beat-up Ford Aerostar — books and Barbies in tow for yours truly — and trekked seven hours straight south from our house in Alabama to a condo in Florida, where we’d spend a week splashing in the pool and building sandcastles with our grandparents and cousins.

I know how fortunate we were to have access to vacations like that. But growing up, even as I loved visiting our favorite beach haunts, I was also frustrated that we never took trips elsewhere. If my parents had vacation time, we went to the beach. The end.

I would love to say that I handled that preference with generosity of both spirit and manner, but alas, I was a child, so instead I complained about it endlessly. Even today, when summer rolls around and I get the chance to do some traveling, I’m unlikely to head toward a coast. (I’m also so pale that I basically reflect the sun back on itself, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The result: I have a somewhat fraught relationship with so-called “beach reads.”

What even is a beach read, you ask? A couple of years ago, fellow Book Squad-er Eli Hoelscher had this to say:

After careful consideration, I have formulated my own totally-made-up definition for the ever-nebulous beach read — a good beach read is a sunny, unchallenging novel that is no more than 350 pages. It must embody the ‘spirit of the summer,’ another thing I made up, which draws on idyllic feelings of freedom, adventure, and whimsy.

There is definitely a time and place for those types of books in all our lives. But through long years of summer reading, I’ve found that my preference for nonbeach vacations carries over to my book choices, too. As the temperature rises and the days get longer, beach reads aren’t necessarily what I reach for. (Personally, I save my lightest reading material for the middle of winter, when I’m desperate for a ray of sunshine and need to be reminded that joy exists in the world.)

This year, I’ve been feeling the unmistakable call of the wild. Woods to explore, mountains to climb, rivers to ford — in quiet moments, that’s where my mind has been wandering. Two reads in particular have kept me in a woodsy mood: Michael Finkel’s "The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit" and Bill Bryson’s "A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail."

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by Lawrence Public Library Staff

Bryson’s book is something of a modern classic at this point. It’s been on my "to read" list for years, so when my online book club decided to make June’s topic “a book about travel,” I dove right in. Written in 1998, "A Walk in the Woods" combines information about the history of the Appalachian Trail with Bryson’s anecdotes about trying (semi-successfully) to hike all 2200 miles with only a backpack and a buddy for company. Forget wishing to live deliberately; Bryson just wants to be the kind of person who can say honestly, “Yeah, I’ve [expletive] in the woods.”

Don’t we all, Bill. Don’t we all.

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by Lawrence Public Library Staff

Christopher Knight, the subject of 2017’s "The Stranger in the Woods," can definitely say that. Not that he ever would — he spent nearly 30 years as a modern-day hermit in the woods of northern Maine, during which he spoke to another human being only once, he says. He was forced out of his silent hermit’s life a few years ago, when he was arrested while stealing food from a local camp, and former journalist Michael Finkel managed to convince him to share his story.

Tonally, the books are completely different. Bryson goes through some stuff, to be sure, but his book is a fundamentally humorous story of his trip along the trail, while Finkel’s is a much more serious, probing look into Knight’s psyche. But ultimately, both seek to shine a light on a single central question: What draws a person into the wilderness?

I’m still trying to answer that question for myself. If you’ve got book recommendations you think will help, feel free to leave a comment down below.

And just so you know, my parents retired last year. When the holidays roll around, I’ll be taking vacation time to go visit them.

At the beach.

— Meredith Wiggins is a readers' services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.