Beach Reading: Top Paperbacks From Way Back

It’s beach reading time. And since I know you don’t want to bring your shiny new hardbacks anywhere near the seaweed and beached jellyfish, I hereby declare the next three months the Summer of Paperback Favorites. While I can’t promise my compilation’s handy acronym (SPF) is accidental, I can assure you I’ve selected several of the awesomest books from the last 60 years to aid in your search for quality vacation fiction. If they’re not dog-eared and waiting on your hammock already, I recommend picking them up straightaway, in saltwater, sand-tested paperback format.

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
In the summer of 2005, we eagerly devoured the penultimate installment in the Harry Potter series, and our infatuations with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Bella and Edward, and Percy Jackson began. What made our hearts pound, however, was an unassuming volume originally intended for younger readers. While it certainly appealed to adolescents, readers and reviewers quickly lauded Zusak’s unique novel as one for all ages, and all lovers of literature. In Nazi-occupied Germany in 1939, Liesel is a foster child who has recently learned how to read and, consequently, has discovered an unquenchable desire for knowledge. The only way she can acquire the books she wants is through thievery, and soon Liesel’s scavenged books are the only thing standing between her and the madness of wartime. Death is the knowing narrator, adding intensity and complexity to this compelling, well-crafted story.

High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby
It was the season of The Lost World and a long-lost manuscript from Louisa May Alcott (A Long Fatal Love Chase), but the most exciting discovery of the summer of 1995 was Nick Hornby, a British novelist who brought the world fresh, funny fiction from a male point of view. In High Fidelity, it’s easy to pity Rob, the owner of a failing record store who just lost his longtime girlfriend to the new-agey weirdo who lives upstairs. And then it’s easy to hate Rob, as he indulges in excessive daydreaming, self-pity, and generally immature behavior. Yes, Rob can get under our skin, but it’s only because Hornby’s characters are so superbly crafted; it’s fortunate we took notice of this offbeat novelist, for we’ve had no shortage of resonant fiction from him over the last 20 years.

Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez
Summer 1985 was full of instant classics like Lonesome Dove, Lake Wobegon Days, and, my personal favorite, The Castle in the Attic, but the achingly beautiful love story to emerge from Nobel Prize winner Marquez was unlike anything readers had ever read before. The New York Times Book Review called it “one of the greatest love stories ever told,” and readers collectively held their breath for 50 years, 9 months, and 4 days right along with Florentino Ariza as he waited for the precise moment to declare his unending love for Fermina Daza. Wondrous, luminous, and unforgettable, this is a perfect vintage summer read.

Terms of Endearment, by Larry McMurtry
It was the summer of Tuck Everlasting, Salem’s Lot, and Ragtime. But what sparked readers’ imaginations across the country was McMurtry’s inimitable masterpiece, that would inspire an Academy Award–winning motion picture: Terms of Endearment. Aurora Greenway and her daughter, Emma, captured and broke readers’ hearts, and made them grimace, guffaw, and grieve. No one who read this timeless story of the love and pain between mothers and daughters ever forgot it, and neither will you.

Dune, by Frank Herbert:
In the heat of summer in 1965, readers heard from Agatha Christie, Flannery O’Connor, and Kurt Vonnegut, and Herbert’s extraordinary new novel flew off the shelves. Quickly hailed as a triumph of imagination, Dune kicked off the Chronicles series, which would eventually go on to win the Nebula and Hugo awards for science fiction, and often be compared to the venerable The Lord of the Rings. In fact, so detailed are the alien landscapes in Herbert’s deeply unsettling series that the New York Times Book Review contended he might have broken ground on a completely new subgenre of “ecological fiction.” You’ll want to join the legions of devoted fans once you crack open this throwback classic.

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
In the summer of 1955, readers were lost in the concluding tales of Narnia and Mordor—and utterly shocked and thrilled by Nabokov’s controversial volume of illicit love. Filled with madness, obsession, and political undertones, if readers could get their hands on Lolita that summer, they read it and immediately passed it along without a word. I’m pretty certain you’ll do the same.

What paperbacks are you toting to the beach this summer?

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