On the boardwalk of Rehoboth Beach, Baltimore attorney Bill Brooke didn't appear to be breaking any rules as he sat quietly on a bench and read a book.
But amid the serenity, interrupted only by the muffled sounds of waves crashing, children squealing and gulls screeching, Brooke was defying convention -- or at least conventional wisdom.
It wasn't that he was reading, or how he was reading, it was what he was reading: Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.
That's no beach book.
No, a "beach book" -- or so publishing houses, book retailers and newspaper and magazines say -- are crowd-pleasing, fast-moving, not too deeply brain-straining page-turners, commonly, but not always, fiction.
Nobody's certain when the term was born. But it was probably the 1960s or '70s when, as a marketing ploy, it began being bandied about, perhaps in connection with a steamy paperback by a Jacqueline Susann or Harold Robbins -- a book that, once read, stained with suntan lotion or lapped by waves, could be thrown away or left behind.
Since then, the term has taken on a life of its own -- its meaning growing so broad as to include more than fiction, more than paperbacks, more than "trashy" novels. Now it is used not just for any entertaining or popular read, but for virtually anything publishers want to sell in the summer.
When summer rolls around, "beach book" is clearly the term of choice in the publishing industry, much like "pre-owned" is to used- car dealers, "Salisbury steak" is to diner owners and "cozy cottage" is to real-estate agents trying to pique interest in that tiny shack on the bad side of town.
Like all things hyped, there is some truth to it. About half of the beach-reading public opts for fast-paced, escapist fare, according to a recent and very informal survey at a beach that, granted, is probably more well-read and upscale than many.
"I came down here with every intention of going to the bookstore for a mindless, or not so mindless, entertaining mystery," said Brooke, the attorney who has vacationed at Delaware's Rehoboth Beach since childhood. But instead of picking up the latest thriller from Grisham or Clancy, Brooke bought a book a friend had recommended, Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. He also grabbed a copy of 101 Things People Should Know About Judaism.
Normally, he goes for lighter reading during a beach trip -- at least since giving up on the idea of using beach time to catch up on work-related reading.
"When I was younger, I would bring a stack of old professional journals," he said. "Now I prefer to find something that is more entertaining. I think, unless you're a type A workaholic, most folks want to read something entertaining."
Off the boardwalk, out in the sand, about one of every five beachgoers was reading. Of them, about half had brought what could be considered a "beach book."
"I mostly read crap," said Jean Hutter, a Washington, D.C. lobbyist, taking a pause from The Last Precinct by Patricia Cornwell. "This is about serial murderers and is loaded with disgusting and revolting details. I don't even like the protagonist. But it's a great beach read."
Her friend, Jean Zakotnik, a computer programmer from Potomac, was reading What the Dog Did by Emily Yoffe. It was making for a better beach read than the book she just finished, Benjamin Franklin, An American Life, which she termed "not a great beach read."
"It was thick and heavy, and one you want to keep on your bookshelf, so you have to worry about suntan lotion leaking all over it," she said.
Last summer, Zakotnik read Anna Karenina, the summer pick of Oprah Winfrey's book club. (This year, Oprah returned to the classics, picking three novels by William Faulkner.) But Zakotnik said she usually prefers something lighter at the beach -- "something you can read, and listen to conversation, and think about what you're having for dinner at the same time."
You don't want anything too deep, you're here to relax -- to sit in the sun, and just veg," said Angela Onwuantibe, a physician from Ellicott City. She was reading You: The Owner's Manual, by anti-aging guru Michael F. Roizen and celebrated heart surgeon Mehmet Oz.
Her niece, Adaugo Opara, a college student, was reading Sula by Toni Morrison. She had packed her organic chemistry textbook, but "My mom saw it in my bag and told me to take that out."
Up the beach a ways, Oksana Pidufala, an international affairs student from D.C., was reading a French grammar book. Next to her, Dan Paulson, a business management consultant, was reading a magazine, The Economist.
"I read casually, and I read lighter things," Paulson said, "but I don't correlate what I read with where I'm at. What I bring to the beach is whatever I'm reading at the time."
Nearby, one woman flipped her way through a stack of old People magazines, while another tried to interest her child in My Little People Busy Town. One man scribbled in a crossword puzzle book, while another read Tom Clancy's Shadow Warriors. A pair of University of Delaware students working at Pizza Hut were deep into romance and horror, respectively: The Wedding by Nicholas Sparks and Fear Nothing by Dan Koontz.
Annie Schap and Kate Taylor of Baltimore admitted they'd brought nothing to read. Having just completed work on their master's degrees at the Maryland Institute College of Art, both said they were giving their brains a needed rest.
Every spring, as sure as the tides, booksellers begin touting what they say is sure to be the year's hottest "beach book." And every summer, newspapers and magazines play along, compiling lists of recommended "beach reads."
Like the tides, it's a cycle: Beach books surface every year because publishers know the news media will eat up the notion. Originally, though, it was a way to sell some books in the dog days of summer.
"It was a marketing device, a way to rise above the flotsam and jetsam of all those books, a gimmick to make yourself heard," said Constance Sayre of Market Partners International, which publishes Publishing Trends, a monthly trade newsletter.
"I think originally it was primarily aimed at women -- women buy most of the books anyway -- and was used for mass-market paperbacks. Now, it includes boys, too. Tom Clancy is a beach read. I think it gets sort of hackneyed ... but you do need a book to take to the beach.
Sayre said she thought it was Carole Baron who came up with the phrase "beach book," but Baron wasn't certain she should take credit. "Maybe I did," said Baron, former president of G.P. Putnam's Sons and Dutton. "Maybe we did an ad that said 'take this book to the beach,' and then it became a media phrase, and then we tried to fit more books into that.
"It has just been some conventional wisdom that people have more leisure time in the summer, and when you're at the beach you want a little more light reading or good story," she said. "Although to tell you the truth, I don't know if that's true anymore."
Now senior vice president at Bookspan, a direct marketing outfit that operates more than 30 book clubs, Baron has worked with such authors as John Grisham, Judy Blume, Nicholas Evans, and Elmore Leonard.
As a publishing executive, Baron would strive to have any potentially popular book released in the summer. "When we were publishing Danielle Steele, we would put the release date smack into June and July, and it was very effective."
Amid all the hype, you'd think summer was peak season for book sales. It's not, which is perhaps why beach books are pushed.
While people may be reading more in summer, the best times for book sales are the fall and around Christmas. Last year, July was one of the slower months, according to the Association of American Publishers.
"That term has been around for 50 years, and I think it has some credence -- there are books more likely to be read on summer vacation than others," said John Kremer, editor of the Book Marketing Update newsletter and author of 1001 Ways to Market Your Books. "And for that reason, publishers bring out more of that kind of book at that time."
Kremer doesn't read on the beach -- "I live in Iowa, and I have very sensitive skin" -- but he thinks beach-goers and vacationers probably opt most often for "a novel that's going to keep you involved, a fast-paced read -- not necessarily without quality, but a fast read.
"Probably 98 percent of beach reads are fiction," he said. "The rest would probably be biographies. A celebrity bio would be considered a classic beach read. But you don't often see people at the beach reading something like How To Be a Better Parent."
The front of Browseabout Books, an independent bookstore a block and a half from the ocean in Rehoboth Beach, is painted with a mural of books on shelves, their titles beachified variations of the originals: Silas Mariner, The Taming of the Shrimp, Gull, Interrupted.
The largest independent bookstore in Delaware, Browseabout is one of half a dozen bookstores in Rehoboth Beach. Scheduled for yesterday at Browseabout was an appearance by Luanne Rice, the prolific author of Beach Girls, Firefly Beach and other beach books -- some set on beaches.
Thus it is possible for Stephen Crane, the literarily-named owner of Browseabout, to walk a couple of blocks and see somebody reading a beach book about the beach on the beach, purchased from his beach bookstore. (He can tell by the store's multicolored bookmarks.)
While people will read almost anything anywhere, he suspects there is some validity to the concept that, once at the beach, many prefer a quick, intriguing, suspenseful read.
"We use it as a marketing device," Crane said. "We might take a beach chair and load it up with books and say, this is the beach book pick."
"If you're on the beach, and you're not in the water, what else are you going to do?... You either watch your kid, or sleep, or eat, or read -- magazines, newspapers or books."
Crane said he suspects people read more at the beach because they have more leisure time, have detached themselves from their routine, and are less likely to watch rerun-filled TV. But since they are not in front of their TVs, reaching the beach-going public through advertising is difficult.
"That's one of the hardest things," said Mark Simon, chief executive officer of Atlantic Book Shops, a chain of 18 bookstores, 12 of which are in beach towns, including Rehoboth. "Media habits are changed at the beach."
Simon once resorted to airplane-pulled signs to advertise, "but you can't fit enough information on them."
He said the company's beach stores carry more fiction and lighter reading than its stores located in non-beach areas. "Fiction is a very strong category down at the beach. People are there on vacation. I personally, when I'm on vacation, like to read junk. I really don't want to learn anything."
While having one's book tagged a "beach read" may have once carried a connotation that it was well short of a literary classic, most authors today don't consider it derogatory, Simon said.
"Today's book world is a very, very commercial venture," he said. "People are looking to sell merchandise. There are not a lot of purists."
This year, the smart money for best-selling beach book not featuring Harry Potter is onThe Historian. Two years ago, The Da Vinci Code was the clear winner.
Bill Brooke, back on the bench on the boardwalk, said he couldn't even get through Dan Brown's mega-hit.
By now, Brooke may have picked up a thriller or two at the bookstore. Or he may know a lot about communicating nonviolently and Judaism. Either way, he expected his beach visit to include a lot of beach reading -- if not beach books.
"I like to sit by the sea," he said. "But I read a lot when I'm here. You can only look at the same boat for so long."
Why summer, books are the perfect match, Page 6
Warm memories from notable readers, Page 6
Summer's hot titles, Page 8
Library reading lists, Page 9
Because of this special summer reading issue, the reviews that normally make up the books pages do not appear this week. The books pages will return to their usual place in Arts & Society next week.