"The Beach: The History of Paradise on Earth," Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker. Viking. 310 pages. $25.95.
It is an ambitious history that begins with the words: "It all began about four billion years ago ..."
Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker are certainly ambitious in "The Beach," beginning it billions of years before the first beach-goers even crawled out of the ooze, much less before their progeny first dove back in. This points up the basic problem with their sometimes fascinating, often maddening book: It's a wide but not very deep exploration of a complex physical and spiritual environment.
The authors are a couple described as specializing in popular culture. Their previous books include a history of architecture in Portland, Ore., a collector's guide to salt and pepper shakers, and a cookbook of updated 1950s barbecue recipes.
"The Beach" attempts to move beyond kitsch into serious scholarship. Its introduction describes the beach as a "proscenium for history," a "conspicuous signpost against which Western culture has registered its economic, aesthetic, sexual, religious, and even technological milestones."
There is an impressive amount of information to be found here, from the eons of geologic activity that created shorelines and sand to the scandalously brief period in which thoughtless humans have managed to degrade so many of these places' health and beauty.
But for all its information, "The Beach" doesn't really tell a whole story. Instead it flits from one point of history to another, like a surfer jumping from wave to wave and riding it wherever it might take him.
Not that there aren't wonderful details to be found along the way: "Bikinis" showing up in a mosaic of a 4th-century Roman villa; the birth of "beach kitsch" like seashells and driftwood in the therapeutic seaside resorts of 18th-century England; the evolution of the suntan from the mark of the lower-class to an emblem of the leisure class.
But there are also dubious claims, especially in the latter chapters of the book, including one that equates the daring of 1960s surfers with that of 15th and 16th century explorers. Bogus, dude!
The book also all but ignores the fundamental role of the beach in many non-Western cultures, save an occasional mention of how peoples like the Polynesians served to inspire the European imagination. More than politically incorrect, such oversights are unforgiveable in a book that purports to be a complete history.
To their credit, the authors do explore the beach's psychological xTC landscape, noting the ambivalence our sometimes timorous species has felt toward a place that is at once and end and a beginning, both alluring and dangerous. What they swim right up to but fail to point out, though, is that the beach, like every other frontier, has always been exactly what we make it: a reflection of our aspirations and fears.
Perhaps the authors should have heeded the words of the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, a Brooklyn preacher of the 19th century whom they quote halfway into "The Beach": "God says some things to the soul ... along the sea-shore ... which he never speaks through books or men."
Michael Gray has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing and editing for newspapers and magazines in Hartford, Conn., and the San Fransisco Bay area. He has worked at The Sun as features news editor since 1996. A California native, he has spent considerable time in contemplation on beaches on three continents and several archipelagoes.
! Pub date: 6/07/98