One of the great pleasures of summer (and there are many) is beach reading — plopping down in a foldout beach chair and plowing through 50 or 60 riveting pages in a paperback. But with summer drawing to a close, it’s time we put those Beach Books back on the shelf, and reach for a different type of read: The Autumn Book.
There’s a reason the novels we commonly consider Beach Books are the way they are. You’re easily distracted on the beach — the sun is in your eyes, there are nearly naked people walking around, and there are so many other things you could be doing. Generally Beach Books don’t require too much deep thought or concentration. They’re page-turners, and massively entertaining, but they’re not the types of books that will make you question essential facets about the world, or yourself.
That’s what Autumn Reads are for.
Now, it’s not that these books aren’t entertaining. They are. And it’s not that they can’t be read on the beach. They can and should. But these books differ from Beach Books in a few important ways. They’re a bit slower, a bit weirder, and maybe a bit moodier. And they’re not likely to be made into Hollywood blockbusters any time soon (although unsuccessful attempts may still be made).
As the days get shorter and the warm weather relents, curl up with one of these Autumn Reads:
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Let’s start with what might be the ultimate Autumn Book. A dark, claustrophobic psychological thriller, the novel centers around a group of college linguistic scholars who fall under the sway of their charismatic Classics professor. Somehow, one of the group members ends up murdered by the others. The incident is detailed on the first page, and you spend the next 500 learning how they got there, and then dealing with the aftermath.
The book is infused with the sort of melancholy dread that accompanies the shortening of fall evenings and the onset of chilly weather. Everyone has looked at the calendar turning to September or October and felt dismay about the oncoming winter. The Secret History sustains that vibe for the entire book — but at the same time, it’s darkly funny, containing more than a few laugh out loud lines.
It takes a little while to fully acclimate to the tone of the novel — Tartt’s writing is hyper-stylish, and the eeriness can be offputting at first — but after the first 60 pages, you’ll be hooked.
Tartt has since become literary royalty for her gigantic 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner The Goldfinch. The Secret History, written partially while she was in college, is a pretty clear indication of where her career was heading.
A Certain Smile by Francoise Sagan
For a certain type of reader, romance books are a Beach Read staple. So what makes A Certain Smile, a romance novel from the 50’s France, an Autumn Book and not a Beach Read? For one thing, there’s almost no sex in it. But ultimately, what makes this book better suited for quiet, contemplative reading is the amount of empathy that Francois Sagan, 19 years old at the time of writing, has for her characters.
Dominique, an 18-year old student in Paris, is bored. Bored with school, bored with her life, but especially bored with her boyfriend, Bertrand. One day she attends a family dinner with Bertrand and meets his uncle, Luc, a 40-ish business man. Dominique is intrigued. You can guess what happens from there.
The remarkable thing about this book full of lust, infidelity, and broken hearts is how sympathetic every character is. Reading it, we felt like we could see ourselves in all of them. We could see ourselves as Dominique, the melancholy partner too afraid to end a relationship, but desperately looking for something else. We could see ourselves as Bertrand, the confused boyfriend who can’t figure out why a relationship is falling apart, despite all his best efforts. Even Francoise, Luc’s wife, who eventually discovers the affair, was familiar to us. It’s as if Sagan has channeled every single psychological aspect of romantic relationships. And let us repeat that she was 19 years old when she wrote this. 19.
Dance, Dance, Dance by Haruki Murakami
Of all the novelists on this list, Murakami is probably the most well-known. His surreal, idiosyncratic books have made him a superstar in his home Japan, and he’s sold millions of books internationally as well.
Dance, Dance, Dance was written before his rise to world-wide fame, but it still bares all the hallmarks of a Murakami novel: A lonely yet seemingly content male protagonist whose life abruptly changes upon meeting a younger woman, a wry, winking narrative voice that often digresses into discussions of pop music or sandwich fixings, and a journey into a bizarre dreamworld that takes our reality and twists it ever so slightly.
This book was selected for this list solely on the basis of its under-heralded reputation. Lots of people have read Murakami’s modern classics like The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood, which makes them perfectly suitable beach reads. (It’s easy to strike up a conversation with an attractive stranger when you’re reading the same book!) But when you’re talking about an Autumn Book, you gotta go with a deep cut. Dance, Dance, Dance won’t be on top of a list of Murakami’s best-selling books any time soon, but that doesn’t make it any less of an amazing accomplishment.
The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills
A lot goes wrong, repeatedly and hilariously. Magnus Mill’s comic send-up of blue-collar English life would make for a perfect beach read, except that in the hot sun, surrounded by distractions, it would be too easy to miss his dry English wit. And then you’d just have a story of a fence being built, rather than tragi-comic ode to working class England, coupled with an accusatory finger in the face of an efficiency-obsessed society that treats its menial workers like animals.
If you want to quickly get an appreciation of Mills’ genius, take a look at the title. “The Restraint of Beasts”. This is a novel about poor, hardworking men building a fence. The fence restrains beasts, like cattle. These men that build the fence are paid a pittance for their work, required to work weekends and holidays, and work and live in sub-human conditions. They are treated like animals, you might say. There is a second “restraint of beasts” going on here.
A Time For Everything by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Karl Ove Knausgaard has since become associated with long stream-of-conscious memoirs that go on and on for dozens of pages detailing in minute detail things like trying to buy beer as a 14 year old, or attending a toddler’s birthday party. But before his My Struggle series catapulted him to fame, the Norwegian writer made his international debut with this difficult but beautiful book about about a religious scholar’s treatise on angels. The novel is part literary criticism of the Bible, and part gorgeous retelling of some of the most memorable Old Testament stories, including Cain and Abel, and Noah and the Flood.
Appreciation of this incredibly ambitious novel requires no religious background or proclivities, but it DOES require some patience, as Knausgaard seems to dedicate three or four sentences to describing the lush pre-flood landscape of the Old Testament for every one sentence that moves the story along. But hidden behind all those details are incredibly powerful stories, filled with humanity. Anyone that doesn’t reassess their values as a person after reading Noah’s daughter’s rebuke of her husband… probably is the type of person that actually DOES need to reassess their values. Seriously. (That section sent us into crises.) Not beach-reading material, and all the more amazing for it.
The Son by Philipp Meyer
A good beach read shouldn’t make you feel like you’re in the desert of Texas, sweating away half your body-weight, while you either A) Get kidnapped by Native Americans, B) Attack Mexicans for racist trumped-up reasons, or C) Drill for oil. None of those images are particularly appropriate for relaxation.
Philipp Meyer’s stunning 2013 novel The Son tells the story of the McCullough family using members from 3 different generations as protagonists. Over 500 pages, Texas changes from an uncultivated land of reciprocal Indian attacks and homesteading, to a battleground of racial attacks against Mexicans, into an oil-filled bonanza for speculators and excavators. And then it changes back again, because the novel is cyclical like that. Perfect for that first fall evening in which you find yourself actually missing the heat.
The Beet Queen by Louise Erdrich
Erdrich writes in a sort of elliptical style that can be off-putting initially. We know that we didn’t make it very far in our first attempts to read her novels. Her writing is lyrical and rhythmic, and often utilizes abrupt changes of perspective or time, sometimes mid-sentence. It all adds up to the type of reading experience where you sometimes have to go back and reread a paragraph to try to realize what the heck she was talking about. Not ideal for a beach, by any means, but not terrible if you’re into that type of thing.
Almost all of Erdrich’s books are about the overlap of Native American and Catholic cultures in the American Midwest, and The Beet Queen is no exception. This novel is actually one of her more accessible books, and is a highly recommended read for high school students. It’s a multi-generational story of family, longing, and loneliness, that begins with 2 children being abandoned by their mother at a state fair. They go their own ways, occasionally crossing paths over the next 60 years. Erdrich’s writing, despite being oblique at times, is absolutely gorgeous. This is definitely a book to take your time with, but ultimately it’ll be an extremely rewarding experience.
Really, there is no wrong time to read any of these books. It just happens that the end of summer leads some into a more introspective reading mode. And while there’s no shortage of things to do or see this time of year, it’s hard to beat spending some time alone, and diving deep into a book that takes some time to wrap your head around.