California is blessed with lots of great beaches, where we paradoxically go to ignore all that beauty and read. “Beach reading” books are typically designated to be trashy thrillers or romances, or both. You can feel good about leaving one behind for the next occupant of your vacation villa to read.
It doesn’t have to be that way. You can find books you’ll want to keep, both because they’re great reading and because every beach has a book that belongs on that stretch of sand. You can read great books that relate to any of the beautiful beaches you’ll find here in Northern California, and return to that beach when you re-read the book.
Baker Beach is the quintessential San Francisco Beach. It’s the sense of scale that is striking; the view of the Golden Gate and the Bay. Why not kick back in your beach chair and read Susan Casey’s The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean and let your imagination take it from there. The Wave begins in the middle of a storm in the North Sea, in February of 2000 when the RRS Discovery, en route from England to Iceland to sample ocean water and test for changes in salinity, oxygen and other factors, found itself being slammed by waves that some thought could not exist.
Casey goes on to interview surfers of giant waves, the scientists who study rogue waves – and rides them herself. This is a fascinating, intense, involving work of non-fiction that will give you visions of watery grandeur for years to come – and help you fill in the Baker Beach view with the terrifying majesty of the waves Casey describes.
Rio Del Mar Beach
Daphne Du Maurier is not a name we associate with beach reading, but her novella The Birds still stands as one of great works of beach-based fiction. And while you might be inclined to read it at Bodega Bay, where the movie by Hitchcock was famously filmed, you’re better advised to head a couple of hours south, to Rio Del Mar Beach, which is just south of Santa Cruz.
There you’ll find the Palo Alto sunk just off the shore, one of the cement ships created during the steel shortages of World War One. Hitchcock was living in nearby Scotts Valley in 1961, when he read a news story in which, “A massive flight of sooty shearwaters, fresh from a feast of anchovies, collided with shoreside structures from Pleasure Point to Rio del Mar during the night.” Algae blooms are to blame, but du Maurier’s chilling vision of nature itself striking a blow again humanity remains ever relevant. Let every bird shadow bring a chill as you read this on that very beach – or anywhere else.
West Of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origins of Belief
Stinson Beach, home to surf camps and surf lessons, deserves no less than Steven Kotler’s West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origins of Belief, an engagingly eccentric combination of lyme-disease memoir, surf lore and neuroscience. Kotler is profound when he’s not screamingly funny; he surfs, often badly, and when he’s not suspended in the moment while riding the waves, he’s always a thought-provoking, engaging writer. Researching the states of ecstasy found in surfers and nuns, Kotler manages to craft a work that takes us on a journey from one to the other in a manner that seems natural and is consistently entertaining.
Another Great Day At Sea
Beaches don’t always come with sand. One of the classic destinations in San Francisco is Fisherman’s Wharf, and there are lots of places to take up a chair and read. Between the SS Jeremiah O’Brien and the USS Pampanito, you’ll find the perfect places to read Geoff Dyer’s Another Great Day At Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. Asked if there was anywhere he’d like to go for a couple of weeks, with the idea he’d write a smallish book about his experiences, Dyer chooses an American aircraft carrier. For two weeks, he was the writer in residence aboard the USS George H. W. Bush. He’s a genial passenger and a hilarious writer.
Dyer portrays himself as a bit fussy, insisting on a cabin by himself, a luxury unheard of on the carrier — but he manages to get it. For all his joviality, Dyer has a deep streak of honesty in him. As we read his self-deprecating prose, we feel we’re getting raw reportage, the real deal, even as Dyer waxes effectively poetic. This is jaunty, informative and fun book about a city at sea, full of great characters and memorable scenes.
The Dogs Of Winter
Half Moon Bay
Half Moon Bay is synonymous with great surf. Sneak just a bit south to Martin’s Beach, now that Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla has lost his lawsuit regarding public access. Make sure you take with you Kem Nunn’s surf novel classic The Dogs of Winter, and let the literary echoes carry you away. When surf photographer Fletcher is hired by a glossy surfing magazine to shoot aging master Drew Harmon at Heart Attacks, a secluded beach, he starts down a road filled with bad blood and gorgeous prose. The primal power of great fiction, the roll of the great waves and pounding of your pulse as you read. You’ll look up and, holding this book at this beach, know what beach reading is really all about.